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A Fragment on Shall and May
American Journal of Legal History (peer reviewed) (2010)
  • Nora Rotter Tillman, None
  • Seth Barrett Tillman, None

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
Publication Date
October 1, 2010
Citation Information
Nora Rotter Tillman & Seth Barrett Tillman, A Fragment on Shall and May, 50 Am. J. Legal Hist. 453 (2010) (peer reviewed), available at, also available at