Should Vs. Shall

By Philologos

Published March 23, 2007, issue of March 23, 2007.
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Writing in the Hebrew newspaper Ha’aretz on March 15, columnist Akiva Eldar declares that Israel should take a positive view of the “Saudi initiative.” The Saudi Arabian peace plan, he argues, is worth considering despite its affirmation of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, which speaks of the Palestinian refugees’ returning to their homes. This is so, Eldar writes, citing the conclusion of international legal expert Geoffrey R. Watson in his book “The Oslo Accords: International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements”(Oxford University Press, 2000), because “the use [by Resolution 149] of the word ‘’should’ (as opposed to the word ‘shall,’ for example) turns the option of return into a mere recommendation.”

Diplomatic documents indeed often demand close linguistic analysis. But is Watson’s reading of this one correct? Let’s look at what Resolution 149 actually says. Paragraph 11 states:

“[The General Assembly] resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

Would this resolution have meant something else, as Watson claims, had it said that the General Assembly “resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors shall be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date”?

Since the auxiliary verbs “shall” and “shan’t” have all but disappeared from American English (in much of Great Britain they are still in common use), this is a particularly difficult matter for an American ear to determine. Inasmuch, however, as Resolution 194 was passed in 1948, when the norms of British English were still internationally prevalent, it’s British usage that counts — and when it comes to the latter, what greater authorities do we have than the estimable Fowler brothers, F.G. and H.W., whose “The King’s English” (first edition published by Oxford University Press, 1906) served generations of perplexed English speakers as a revered guide. Here’s what “The King’s English” (traditionally known as “Fowler”) has to say about “shall,” “should,” “will” and “would” in a discussion that is 20(!) pages long:

“It is unfortunate that the idiomatic use [of these words], while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them [this] section is in danger of being useless. In apology for the length of the remarks it must be said that the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless. The observant reader soon loses faith in them… and the unobservant is the victim of false security.”

Needless to say, this is highly reassuring! Fowler then opens its discussion with the following short and simple directions: “Roughly speaking, should follows the same rules as shall, and would as will.”

In their pure form, Fowler continues, shall and should express command or obligation, whereas will and would express intention or prediction, the difference between the two members of each pair being that the second is the conditional form of the first. Hence, “the refugees… shall be permitted to do so” would indicate that Israel is commanded to accept them unconditionally, whereas “the refugees… should be permitted to do so” indicates that this command is subject to a condition — in this case, presumably, that the refugees wish “to live at peace with their [Jewish] neighbors.”

Would such a reading of our text, if it is the correct one, turn Paragraph 11 of Resolution 149 into a “mere recommendation,” as Watson puts it? Only if the “should” here is conditioned not on the Palestinians’ willingness to “live at peace with their neighbors” but rather on Israel’s willingness to accept them — and for such an interpretation, there is no support in the text itself. Furthermore, “should” rather than “shall” occurs twice more in Paragraph 11, each time regarding the financial compensation that is to be paid to those refugees not wishing to return, and one cannot be flagrantly inconsistent: If 149 intends to say that Israel need not accept any refugees unless it wants to, then it also intends to say that Israel need not pay any refugees compensation unless it wants to — a construction of Paragraph 11 that would be rather bizarre, to say the least.

True, in practice, as opposed to theory, the difference between “shall” and “should” in British English is somewhat different: “shall” often expressing a command on the speaker’s part, and “should” merely a desire, as in “You shall go to the doctor” vs. “You should go to the doctor.” And yet if we paraphrase Paragraph 11 as saying, “The General Assembly desires that the refugees be permitted to return to their homes,” is this significantly better for Israel? How big an improvement over flouting the U.N.’s command would be flouting the U.N.’s desire?

In short, if Israel’s acceptance of the Saudi initiative depends on Watson’s reading of Resolution 194, the Saudis should politely be told in the king’s English, “No, thank you.”

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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