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Shall vs. Can: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on December 2, 2023
"Shall" indicates a strong intention or requirement, while "can" denotes ability or possibility.

Key Differences

"Shall" is often used to indicate a future action, particularly in formal contexts, suggesting obligation or determination. "Can," however, refers to someone's ability or capacity to do something.
In legal and formal contexts, "shall" is used to express mandatory actions or duties, denoting a stronger sense of obligation. "Can" is less formal and implies permission or possibility, rather than obligation.
"Shall" can express a promise or a certain future event, especially in formal English. "Can" implies capability or feasibility, without the certainty or commitment often associated with "shall."
When used in questions, "shall" can suggest a suggestion or offer (e.g., "Shall we go?"), while "can" in questions is more about seeking permission or inquiring about ability (e.g., "Can I go?").
The use of "shall" is more prevalent in British English, especially for formal or future intentions. "Can" is widely used in both American and British English, with a focus on ability or permission.

Comparison Chart

Usage Context

Formal, often in legal or official language
Informal, general usage


Obligation, intention, future action
Ability, permission, possibility


Offers, suggestions
Permission, ability inquiries

Legal Documents

Implies requirement or duty
Implies permission or capacity

Cultural Preference

More common in British English
Universally used in both British and American English

Shall and Can Definitions


Used to indicate future action or intention.
We shall meet at the cafe tomorrow.


Expresses possibility or potential.
Anything can happen in this game.


Expresses a strong determination or promise.
I shall complete the project by the deadline.


Indicates the ability or capacity to do something.
She can speak four languages.


Can be a formal alternative to will.
You shall receive the report by next week.


Used in informal questions or requests.
Can you help me with this task?


Indicates an obligation or duty, especially in legal contexts.
Tenants shall pay rent on the first of every month.


Suggests availability or suitability.
This room can hold up to fifty people.


Used in formal suggestions or offers.
Shall we begin the meeting now?


Used to ask for or give permission.
Can I borrow your book?


Used before a verb to indicate the simple future tense in the first person singular or plural.
I shall sing in the choir tomorrow.
I hope that we shall win the game.


A usually cylindrical metal container.


An airtight container, usually made of tin-coated iron, in which foods or beverages are preserved.


Can 'shall' imply a command?

Yes, in legal or formal settings, 'shall' can be used to imply a command or obligation.

When should I use 'shall' instead of 'will'?

Use 'shall' for formal contexts or to emphasize determination, especially in British English.

Is 'can' suitable for expressing permission?

Yes, 'can' is commonly used to ask for or give permission.

Are 'shall' and 'will' interchangeable?

They can be in some contexts, but 'shall' is more formal and less common in American English.

In what situations is 'can' preferable to 'could'?

Use 'can' for present ability or permission, 'could' for past ability or more polite requests.

Is 'can' appropriate for formal writing?

'Can' is more informal; use 'may' or 'is able to' for more formal contexts.

Can 'can' be used in legal documents?

It's less common; 'may' or 'is authorized to' are more appropriate in legal texts.

Can 'shall' indicate a future event?

Yes, especially in formal contexts or legal language.

How does context affect the use of 'shall'?

The context can change 'shall' from a simple future tense to an expression of obligation or determination.

Does 'can' always indicate ability?

Mostly, but it can also imply possibility or permission.

Is 'can' suitable for all types of writing?

'Can' works in most types, but in very formal writing, alternatives like 'is able to' might be better.

Is 'shall' still widely used in modern English?

It's less common in American English but still used in formal or legal British English.

How does 'shall' function in questions?

'Shall' in questions often makes suggestions or offers, especially in formal settings.

Are there exceptions to the use of 'shall'?

Yes, in legal language, 'shall' can have specific, binding implications.

What's the difference between 'can' and 'may' in asking permission?

'Can' is more informal, while 'may' is more polite and formal.

Do 'shall' and 'will' have the same level of formality?

No, 'shall' is generally more formal than 'will.'

Does 'shall' have different meanings in different contexts?

Yes, it can indicate future action, obligation, or formality, depending on context.

Is 'can' used differently in American and British English?

Usage is similar in both, though American English may prefer 'can' over 'may' for permission.

How is 'can' used in informal speech?

'Can' is commonly used for ability, permission, and informal requests in everyday conversation.

Can 'can' be used in questions about capability?

Yes, it's commonly used to inquire about someone's ability or capacity to do something.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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