“Shall”, “may” and “must” for Finance Professionals

When writing or presenting technical material, is it best to use “shall”, “may” or “must”? It is easy to understand why financial professionals such as CPAs, CMAs, or CFAs often use “shall” instead of its plain language counterparts “may” or “must”. Many IRS rules, statutes, and regulations use “shall”. It also feels very authoritative, n’est-ce pas? The term carries the weight of centuries of scripture, tradition, and authority. What is more, finance professionals I interact with simply feel like “shall” means absolutely, positively and without any exception, while “may” and “must” feel less definitive.

The problem is that “shall” is an ambiguous term, carrying multiple potential meanings, including “is required to” or “has a duty to”, or “may”. The problem primarily exists when you use the phrase, “No person shall . . . .” Does this mean that no person may, or no person is required to? This situation is a primary reason many U.S. federal and state legal drafting committees have abandoned “shall” for the less ambiguous and more precise, “must” and “may”.

Of course, there are circumstances when “shall” is perfectly appropriate.

  • When you are quoting regulations themselves that use “shall”.
  • Ummmm . . . .

Yep. That’s right. Unless you are trying to sound like a high tea-sipping member of the British Parliament, or a member of that country club whose members certainly wouldn’t associate with me, that is the only time. And put yourself in your clients’ shoes–would you really like to hang out with an accountant who uses “shall” to tell you what to do? “Must” and “may” or just as strong when used properly. And they are more correct. 

The transition from “shall” to “must” and “may” is especially challenging for a global finance professional perhaps using English as a second, or otherwise non-native language. I frequently see it both in the legal and finance context where using the plain language, yet more precise, “may/must” construction is questioned and challenged. But my recommendation is the same globally though–eliminate “shall” completely from your professional vocabulary, and replace it with “must” or “may” where appropriate.

For an entertaining read agreeing with my position on eliminating “shall”, see Bryan Garner’s article in the American Bar Journal at http://www.abajournal.com/mobile/mag_article/shall_we_abandon_shall


    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s