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You Shall Remove This Word From Your Documents

For my first year computing security class, I have had to read a lot of government documentation. The documentation is far from perfect, but one word sticks out like a sore thumb: “shall.” For a single 79-page technical standard (NIST SP 800-63B) involved in the class, this word was used 286 times, or once for every 91 words. In fact, word frequency analysis showed that “shall” was the 12th most used word, behind: the, of, two, a, and, is, Authenticator, be, in, for, or and ahead of words like that, an, as, by, at, on. Obviously, the 12th most used word in the document is vital, so it must have a simple meaning, right?

At this point, I am thinking to myself that I must be missing something. I never use the word “shall,” and only have a general idea of what it means. I can think of sentences where I could use shall, but I could not consistently translate it into a foreign language and back arriving at the same word (my standard test for evaluating language simplicity). I will likely write an article in the future explaining my methodology, but when I tried translating, I kept on coming back with “must,” “will,” “should,” or “can” depending on the context.

At this point, I begin conducting more research and discover that I am not the only person to have issues with the word shall. In fact, six years before the NIST wrote the relevant standard, the Federal Government’s Plain Language initiative advised avoiding using the word “shall” and replacing it with “must.” They outline three reasons to replace shall with must:

  • Shall has no single definition, creating uncertainty
  • Shall’s shaky legal meaning opens the door to litigation
  • It is unnecessary and hurts understanding since it is not commonly used

I had not considered the potential litigation issues with using the word shall, which could be the final blow that kills it. Regardless, you should now consider whether you want to continue using “shall” for standards, technical documents, laws, and more. To review, shall:

  • Opens the door to litigation due to uncertainty
  • Is difficult for the general public to understand
  • Hurts communication effectiveness due to ambiguity

As such, you should replace shall with a word that more accurately conveys your intended meaning and is more approachable.