Can vs Will vs Shall

Last Updated: April 27, 2024

Can vs Will vs Shall

In the English language, words like “can,” “will,” and “shall” are essential for expressing abilities, future actions, and obligations. Though they may seem similar at first glance, each word carries its own unique implications and is used in different contexts. “Can” is about possibility and ability, “will” is focused on future intentions, and “shall” often conveys a sense of formality or obligation. By exploring these words more closely, we can demystify their meanings and learn to use them correctly in our everyday communication.

Can, Will, and Shall – Meanings

  • Can: This term denotes the ability or capacity to do something. It is often used to express physical or mental capability, permission, or possibility. For instance, saying “I can swim” indicates that one possesses the skill to swim.
  • Will: “Will” is primarily used to indicate future actions or events that are planned or expected to occur. It can also express a person’s determination or willingness to do something. For example, “I will finish this project by tomorrow” reflects a commitment to completing the project.
  • Shall: Historically, “shall” was used to indicate future actions, similar to “will,” but in modern English, its usage has become more formal and is often replaced by “will.” It is still used in legal, regulatory, or formal contexts to denote obligations or requirements, as in “The tenant shall pay the rent on time.”


While “can,” “will,” and “shall” may seem straightforward, they serve different purposes in language. “Can” is about ability and possibility, used when talking about what someone knows how to do or is allowed to do. “Will” points to the future, indicating what someone intends to do or what is likely to happen. “Shall” has a more formal tone, often associated with rules, laws, and formal agreements, emphasizing obligation or duty. Understanding these distinctions ensures clear and precise communication.

How to Pronounce Can, Will, and Shall

  • Can: Pronounced as /kæn/ in its modal form and /kən/ when contracted, as in “I can” (/aɪ kæn/) or “I can’t” (/aɪ kənt/), with a short ‘a’ sound like in “cat.”
  • Will: Pronounced as /wɪl/, with a short ‘i’ sound, similar to “will” in “willpower.” The contracted form “I’ll” sounds like /aɪl/, blending smoothly with the pronoun.
  • Shall: Pronounced as /ʃæl/, with a short ‘a’ sound akin to “shallow” without the ‘ow’ at the end. It carries a more formal and less frequently used tone in everyday conversation.

Differences between Can, Will, and Shall

DefinitionIndicates ability or possibility, sometimes permission.Indicates future intention or determination.Traditionally indicates future actions, now more formal or legal obligations.
SpecificityRelated to skills, abilities, and permissions.Tied to future plans, promises, and voluntary actions.Linked to formal obligations, duties, or requirements.
ContextGeneral usage for capabilities and possibilities.Future actions, intentions, and predictions.Formal, legal, or regulatory contexts, indicating obligation.
UsageDescriptive of potential actions or permissions.Descriptive of future commitments or intentions.Descriptive of mandated actions or formal intentions.
Grammatical FormModal verb used for expressing possibility or ability.Auxiliary verb used for forming future tense.Modal verb used in formal contexts for future actions or obligations.

How to Remember the Difference between Can, Will, and Shall

To differentiate, remember that “can” relates to capability or permission, as in “Can you hear me?” For “will,” think of future actions or decisions, like “I will go to the store.” “Shall” is more formal, often found in legal texts or formal agreements, signaling a stronger sense of duty or requirement, as in “You shall abide by the rules.”

When to Use Can, Will, and Shall

Usage of Can:

  • Capability: Use “can” to talk about someone’s skill or ability. “She can solve complex math problems.”
  • Permission: To grant or ask for permission in a casual context. “Can I leave early today?”
  • Possibility: To discuss the likelihood of something happening. “It can rain in the afternoon.”

Usage of Will:

  • Future Action: When talking about something that is planned for the future. “I will travel to France next year.”
  • Willingness: To express readiness or willingness to do something. “I will help you with your homework.”
  • Prediction: For making predictions about the future. “It will probably snow tomorrow.”

Usage of Shall:

  • Formal Obligation: In legal documents or formal settings to indicate duties. “The company shall deliver the goods by Monday.”
  • Suggestion: To offer a polite suggestion or proposal. “Shall we start the meeting?”
  • Strong Intention: In formal or poetic contexts, to express a strong resolution. “We shall overcome the obstacles.”

How to Use Can, Will, and Shall

Using Can:

As a Modal Verb: “Can” is used to discuss ability, permission, or possibility. “You can see the stars on a clear night.”

Using Will:

As an Auxiliary Verb: “Will” is used to form the future tense, indicating a decision, promise, offer, or prediction. “I will call you later.”

Using Shall:

As a Modal Verb: In formal contexts, “shall” is used to express future actions, especially obligations or offers. “You shall receive an update by tomorrow.”

Can, Will, and Shall – Examples

Examples of Can:

  • Can you hear me now?”
  • “I can play the piano.”
  • “We can meet tomorrow.”

Examples of Will:

  • “I will finish the report by tonight.”
  • “The weather will be sunny tomorrow.”
  • Will you marry me?”

Examples of Shall:

  • “You shall not pass without authorization.”
  • Shall I open the window?”
  • “The terms of the contract shall be enforced.”


CanAble to, capable of, may
WillShall (in some contexts), is going to, is about to
ShallShould (in some contexts), is determined to, is obliged to


Fill in the blanks with either “can,” “will,” or “shall” to complete the sentences accurately.

  1. I _____ help you with that heavy box.
  2. _____ you pass me the salt, please?
  3. We _____ discuss the project details tomorrow.
  4. The meeting _____ commence at 10 AM sharp.
  5. You _____ obey the rules while in the park.


  1. will
  2. Can
  3. will
  4. shall
  5. shall

What is the Difference Between Can, Will, and Shall?

Can indicates ability, will implies intent or certainty, and shall often denotes a strong assertion or command.

What is the Difference Between Shall and Will Have?

Shall is a formal way to express future actions, while will have suggests a completed action in the future.

What is the Difference Between Will, Going to, and Shall?

Will shows future actions, going to reflects planned actions or inevitable events, and shall is more formal or authoritative.

What is the Difference Between Shall and Would?

Shall suggests future action, often in formal contexts, while would is the past tense of will or expresses a conditional mood.

When Should I Use Shall?

Use shall for formal situations, offers, or when expressing a strong determination or promise in the first person.

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