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.
The American Journal of Legal History is a peer reviewed journal.
[originally posted November 18, 2007] [accepted for publication June 14, 2010] [published October 2010] [last updated September 2, 2011]
- Shall May Will Textualism