LINGUIST List 8.161

Tue Feb 4 1997

Disc: The English Future

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Joseph F Foster, Re: 8.147, Disc: English Future
  2. Alex HOUSEN, Re: the English Future

Message 1: Re: 8.147, Disc: English Future

Date: Sat, 01 Feb 1997 08:04:19 -0500 (EST)
From: Joseph F Foster <Joseph.FosterUC.Edu>
Subject: Re: 8.147, Disc: English Future

	In short, there is no English Future. I join Carl Mills'
expression of dismay at the continued confusion of semantics and
syntax~morphology. I presume that by "future tense markers" Mr. Anderson
in the "Ebonics" <--?it's a foolish word as Black English has nothing to
do with "phonics"--do we HAVE to use it?) post meant things like 'will' or
'shall' in 'My train will leave at 6.' There is no more reason to call
the modal 'will' a tense marker and to call 'will leave' THE English
future tense than there is to call any of the following such forms
	My train can leave at 6.
		 dare not

I wonder what the "tense" is in 'My train might can leave at six.', which
is perfectly good Ozark and Appalachian English (now being called
"Hill-billy Bonics" in Cincinnati!). Indeed, since 'My train leaves at
six tonight.' is perfectly good English in all standard dialects, and it
is synonymous or nearly so with 'MY train will leave at 6 tonite.', I
presume 'leaves' is a future tense, and {-s} is an English 'future tense
marker?! Of course not. If 'tense' is to be used fast and loose in this
way, then it means nothing and does no useful work for us. English has a
PAST TENSE 'left', an AORIST, or GENERAL NONPAST TENSE 'leaves', and a
whole passel of modal and semimodal (need, dare, ought...) auxiliaries.

Why does it matter? After all, I dont know of any language in which people
cant talk about the future. If Linguistics is about language, it matters
because Latin verbs (which have several real tenses) and English verbs
(which have only one, or two at most) simply dont work alike. If of course
Linguistics is NOT about language but about something else, then I suppose
linguistic facts arent data, and descriptive accuracy doesnt matter. 

Joe Foster
	Joseph F Foster
	Assoc. Professor of Anthropology
	University of Cincinnati 45221-0380
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Message 2: Re: the English Future

Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1997 16:21:22 +0100
From: Alex HOUSEN <>
Subject: Re: the English Future

I tend to disagree with Carl Mills' and Joseph Foster's view that there is
no such thing as a Future tense in English. Part of the argument is of
course a matter of terminology. What counts as a tense? The received view
seems to be that only morphological (i.e. inflectional) categories on the
verb count as real tenses. Several recent accounts on tense and aspect
(e.g. Declerck 1991:17) argue against this narrow view (which is probably a
remnant of the Latin-centered traditional grammar approach to the study of
modern languages).

Diachronic, synchronic and cross-linguistic arguments against the popular
view that English does not have a Future Tense are advanced by Dahl
(1985:105ff), Comrie (1989:53-6), Matthiesen (1983:407-11), Lyons
(1977:815ff) and Declerck (1991:10-13). These authors point out that the
English Future Tense (i.e. will/(shall)+V) has indeed developed out of
modal forms (like most if not all Indo-European Future Tenses). However,
there are some compelling arguments for the claim that the will/shall+V
construction in modern English is first and foremost a tense expressing
future time reference and which has secondary modal uses or overtones,
rather than the other way around (cf. Dahl 1985; Comrie 1989). Statements
about future situations are of necessity non-actual and non-factual and,
hence, modal in nature (though the reverse is of course not necessarily
true). This need not imply, however, that the will/shall+V group primarily
expresses modality.
The status of the English Future as a proper tense category has further
often been questioned on the basis of the fact that it is but one of
several constructions that can be used for future time reference; also the
Present Tense, Present Progressive, and the periphrastic Be+going+Vinf
construction can be used to this end. To this argument, however, the
following counter-arguments can be adduced (cf. also Declerck 1991:11-13):

(a) the same argument could equally be applied to, say, the
inflectional Futur Simple of French. French, too, uses the Present Tense
and a periphrastic construction with "aller" to indicate futurity.
However, the status of the Futur Simple as a proper tense category is
hardly ever questioned.
(b) will+V is the only form that refers to future time and which is
compatible with all verb types. Particularly stative verbs do not allow
for the alternative categories (cf. "*Tomorrow I know/*am knowing/??am
going to know why he did it").
(c) as opposed to the Present and Present Progressive, the Future Tense
is capable of referring to future time in and by itself. In contrast, the
Present and Present Progressive require future time adverbials or
contextual support to express future reference. Present tense clauses,
when uttered in isolation, yield a present-time reading.
(d) the Simple Future is the category which most readily combines with
a progressive infinitive to express future tense plus progressive aspect
(cf. "I will be swimming" vs. "*I am swimming"), though the combination
with the Be+going+Vinf form seems acceptable too ("?This time tomorrow I am
going to be lying in the sun").

Given the above, it seems legitimate to consider the will/shall+V as the
unmarked means of expressing future time in English and, hence, as a
proper Future tense form.

PS. The use of shall+V is now almost obsolete, being restricted to a few
(British?) dialects and registers.


Comrie, B. 1989. On identifying future tenses, in Abraham, W. & Janssen,
T. (eds.), Tempus - Aspekt - Modus: die lexikalischen und grammatischen
=46ormen in den Germanischen Sprachen, T=FCbingen: Niemeyer, 51-63.

Dahl, =D6. 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems., Oxford: Oxford University Pres=

Declerck, R. 1991. Tense in English: its structure and use in discourse,
London: Routledge.

Matthiesen, C. 1983. Choosing primary tense in English, Studies in
Language, 7, 369-429.

Lyons, J. 1977. Semantics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research
Department of Germanic Languages
Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: 32+2+629 26 64
=46ax: 32+2+629 36 84
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