We will, we must, we might, we may… we won’t

Choose your words with care.

Say what you mean and mean what you say, is what I always say. So when we’re giving people direction, what sort of directive words could we use to be clear in our meaning?

Consider this Health & Safety directive:

“All canisters should be returned to the upright position.”

We know it’s a Health & Safety message, and so it’s ‘important’ but how are we to understand that ‘should’?

‘Should’ is an ambiguous term, and could lead to confusion or more likely, excuses. Perhaps the canisters should be upright, but if they’re not, no big deal?

Consider the following words and reflect on which are absolute directives and which have an element of choice within them.

  • should
  • shall
  • could
  • will
  • must
  • may
  • can

If we’re writing meaningful communications, especially if we’re discussing laws, regulations, procedures, processes and policies, we must choose our words with care in order to say what we mean and mean what we say.

Should‘ has a level of ambiguity in it, while also having a moral judgement element. ‘Children should be seen and not hurt’.

Shall‘ has a certainty about it that brooks no debate. ‘We shall overcome’. ‘Employees shall start at 9am’.

Could‘ offers a choice and a request. ‘Pupils could learn French’. ‘Could the father of the screaming child return to his car’.

Will‘ has a certainty about it, and a questioning element, similar to ‘shall’. ‘We will be the best customer service team’. ‘Will the screaming child please shut up’.

Must‘ appears to be an imperative, but it is often overused. ‘Herbivores must eat vegetation’ is a truism, but ‘passengers must fasten their seatbelts’ is only an imperative; after all, I could choose to leave my seatbelt off, and face any consequences.

May‘ and ‘can‘ – really different words that we now use interchangeably. ‘May‘ refers to permission. ‘Can‘ refers to ability. ‘I can leave the table, but I may not without my father saying so.’

I guess it’s too formal to say “you may email me…” – I guess we feel better about using ‘can’ in such situations.

But my point is, we should / must select the correct word to match the agreed importance of our directive. It’s no good telling people that they ‘must volunteer for tonight’s hockey match’ or that they ‘may take care during gas leaks’.

Tip: if you’re writing a procedure that must be adhered to, use ‘shall’ and ‘will’ and ‘must’. Don’t use ‘should’ unless there is an occasion when people ‘shouldn’t’.

1 comment
  1. Ha! Your blog has reminded of the librarian at my school. She was a stickler for using the words ‘can’ and ‘may’ correctly and I’ve never forgotten. If I ever asked: “Can I take this book out please?” she would answer: “You may, but you cannot!”

    I tend to use ‘may’ quite a lot as a result, but I suppose it does sound rather formal these days.

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