A Fragment on Shall and May
American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 50, p. 453, 2010
6 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2007 Last revised: 30 Mar 2017
Date Written: May 27, 2010
This short paper has some comments on the Constitution's use of the verbs "shall" and "may" (and "will"). We suggest that the American English of the founding generation was a more capacious language than its modern successor and that which came into being post-Noah Webster's first dictionary and grade school primer, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, first published in 1783. As we explain more fully, where a word once had multiple meanings, but only one variant is now remembered and understood, we may be seriously mistaken when we ascribe near certainty to our understanding of how a constitutional term was used.
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Keywords: shall, may, will, Constitution, Anglo-English, American-English, Madison
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