What Becomes of Language Pedantry

In the past, language pedants used to get very exercised about the difference between “will” and “shall,” insisting that one was correct in certain circumstances, while the other was correct in others.

(I tried to read a couple of explanations of this, since the debate was over before I was a child, but the distinction is dull even by the standards of usage debates. Something about conveying a sense of duty in the second person or some shit. I dunno.)

Above is a picture in the parking lot of Boston Latin School, a place that has historically had more pedants per square foot than almost any other educational institution in America. (It’s also an abusive environment, and the city should really burn it to the ground and salt the earth. But I digress.)

Behold the victory of pedantry! Gaze upon its works, ye mighty, and despair! Some pain in the ass pendant on the Boston Latin School faculty made sure that the no parking sign said “shall be towed,” doubtless to conform to whatever picayune distinction they thought existed between will and shall.

I’m sure they swelled with pride as the sign went up, secure in the knowledge that Boston Latin School, alone among pretty much the whole of the United States of America, had a no parking sign that “correctly” used shall instead of will.

And now? There is a faded sign that uses shall instead of will. As grammarist.com says, “using shall usually carries a subtext of comedy or irony.” In other words, in the United States, it’s used as a joke, conveying, “I am pretending to be a fancy-pants asshole.”

This is what being a grammar pedant gets you. In most cases, you’ve already lost the battle you think you’re fighting (as in when people insist that the real meaning of “beg the question” is not the one that everyone understands today but rather some boring shit having to do with debate team). Remember when River Phoenix as young Indiana Jones emerged from a cave to find himself alone and pronounced, “everybody’s lost but me!” Yeah, that’s you, the grammar pedant.

The sign indicates the ultimate outcome: a sign that’s an unintentional joke. The stone face of Ozymandias, sneering at the elements that have destroyed it. So do yourself a favor and don’t be the person who insists that some beleaguered city worker change the sign to read shall instead of will. Sure, you won’t get that surge of superiority from being the only one who’s right, but, on the other hand, people will probably like you more.