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'Must' is getting musty; so is 'shall'

This week on That’s What They Say, we find out why so many of us are not using the words must and shall anymore.

“Linguists have been tracking these modals, these helping verbs or auxiliary verbs, and must has been on the decline for most of the 20th century into the 21st. And it’s not alone. Other modals like might and shall are also in decline,” said Anne Curzan, a professor of English specializing in linguistics at the University of Michigan.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller continues, "But there are two different uses of the word must, right?

“There are, and one is healthier than the other. So the use of must to express likelihood: You come in and your shoes are wet and I say ‘oh, it must be raining.’ That one is doing okay. But the one to express obligation, like ‘I must run errands,’ that one not as healthy," explained Curzan.

So what are we replacing must with? Curzan tells us that some people are “horrified”to know the use of the word must is in decline. But then people realize they don’t use must as much as they do have to or hafta.

According to Curzan, shall is also a “dying modal.”  She said, “I find it hard to say shall with a straight face in a lot of contexts. The one place we’ll say it is something like as an invitation, ‘shall we?’  But then if we answer ‘we shall,’ you sort of have to smile and acknowledge that it’s kind of a joke.”

Mercedes Mejia is a producer and director of Stateside.