LINGUIST List 8.178

Thu Feb 6 1997

Disc: The English Future

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. benji wald, Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future
  2. Tom Payne, Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future
  3. George Elgin, Suzette Haden Elgin, English future tense
  4. harder, future in English
  5. Yehuda N. Falk, Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future

Message 1: Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future

Date: Wed, 5 Feb 1997 00:11:09 -0800 (PST)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future

To some extent I agree with Alex Housen in his disagreement with Joseph
Foster about whether English has a "future tense" or not. However, my main
disagreement with Joe is that he is missing the point if he gets hung up on
terminology in responding to such ideas as Ron Anderson expressed. My
worst-case reading of Anderson's comment, which I think is also the most
likely one, is that he thinks the kids he tested do not have the cognitive
development to understand what the "future" is (whatever that might mean).
Does it mean they can't look forward to Christmas presents or to food when
they get hungry? Or to the end of the schoolday so they can play or watch
TV or whatever?
Does it mean that the next thing that happens to them is always totally
unexpected? Does it mean they don't know what "wait!" means? In that
context, Joe's comment would be "pedantic", criticising Anderson's use of a
word in a way that is common outside of linguistics, and does not criticise
Anderson's main thesis as unclear at best.

Within the domain of discourse which IS linguistics, Joe is quite right to
point out, as many others have, that there is still confusion among
scholars as to whether "tense" refers to some kind of morphological/formal
paradigm or to some kind of conceptual notion. And in discussing that,
scholars often lapse from one usage to another, even when they start out
acknowledging that the confusion is a problem. One might think there is
something inherently confusing about the phenomenon at issue. And maybe
there is.

It seems to me that if "tense" means anything conceptually, common
linguistic usage is that it refers to some kind of time relationship
between a verb, representing an event or whatever, and a time reference
point. By this common use, "future" means an event conceptualised to take
place some time or other AFTER the moment of speaking. Furthermore, it
seems to me that conceptualisation of "tense" in this way is implicit in
all comparisons of "tense" across languages, or diachronically within a
language, such as French, and even more strikingly, Spanish. Otherwise,
what is the basis for comparison?

This is apart from consideration of whether "will", "gonna", "intending
to", "fixing to", "aiming to", "will can"(?) and such expressions of
modality are semantically characterisable as "future tense" or something
else, e.g., marking of "irreality" from which "future" time reference is
deduced pragmatically somehow. In this respect, it turns out that in
English, at least spoken English, "will" is very frequently used for
habitual, "Murder will out", "boys will be boys" etc. If you're a "future
tense" advocate I guess you'll say that this usage is some
conventionalisation of the relation between habituality and prediction.
That is, if you suppose "boys will be boys" "literally" ("semantically"?)
is a prediction, then you will argue that the implied basis for the
prediction is that such things as "boys being boys" happen recurrently, and
therefore "prediction" has conventionalised in English as also a way to
express habituality. (Actually I think the "habitual" use is as old as the
"future" use, so one use may never have had priority over the other use in
any way.)

Very interesting is Alex's observation that some verbs, like "know", cannot
be used to express the "conceptual" future without "will". Naturally, my
first thought is that that fact is somehow related to the fact that "know"
also does not allow a so-called "progressive" construction, ?"I'm knowing
that". And I had to pause to consider his example "I'm gonna know that
tomorrow", before deciding that it was OK. We might also wonder, if it
hasn't been solved yet, why "will" can be used in volunteering, but "gonna"
cannot, e.g., "Who volunteers to put the bell on the cat's tail?" Answer:
"I will", NOT "I'm gonna". Does it go back to "will" meaning "want", e.g.,
"I'm WILLing"? Seems to me that in this context, "I will" also somehow
concedes that it's not up to me to be selected, only to offer. "I'm gonna"
sounds peculiar because it contradicts that implication.

In any case, do such considerations detract from a "purely" tense analysis
of "will"? Or is the issue not whether it's "tense" or not, but how the
"conceptual future" is never expressed by "tense" alone in English, and
that's why there are always further choices to be made if "future" is to be
expressed in English? And what is the status of the difference in choosing
between "tomorrow we WILL KNOW" and "tomorrow we're GONNA FIND OUT"? It
seems like we're back to the problem of syntax vs. semantics, as usual.

Spanish seems more interesting than French in this regard, since at least
the forms of (Mexican) Spanish I am most familiar with never use the
"morphological future" to express tense alone. The meaning of "hablarA" is
always something like "he might talk". The "periphrastic future" has to be
used to get rid of the doubt/hedge: "va a hablar" 'he will/'s gonna talk'.
By the way, you might suggest that calling them both types of "future"
causes some kind of problem. I'm not so sure. My understanding on the
basis of more conservative dialects of Spanish is that, like French, the
"morphological future" was once pretty much an indication of tense without
modality, i.e., without some marking of the proposition for belief status.
If so, the Spanish "morph fut" has shifted from tense to modality. This
movement is parallel to the "past subjunctive" (or whatever you call it),
e.g., "hablAra" 'I would (have) go(ne)', which was earlier an "indicative
pluperfect", but has pretty much replaced the -se past sjn in such
varieties of Spanish. Meanwhile, English "will" seems to have been moving
in the opposite direction, from "modality" to "tense". It never had a
"morphological future", at least not since Pre-Germanic.

A lot remains to be understood about "tense" and "modality", beyond how we
ever started using these terms in making cross-linguistic comparisons in
the first place.

P.S. what does "shall" mean? -- Benji
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Message 2: Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future

Date: Wed, 05 Feb 1997 08:27:21 -0800
From: Tom Payne <tpayneOREGON.UOREGON.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future

The discussion of whether or not English has a "future tense" is apropos
to a class I am teaching right now. So I am going to contribute 2c and
10 minutes to this debate.

I support the "two tense" analysis of English, as past and non-specific.
The arguments for this are formal and functional. The formal argument is
that English verbs only have one tense distinction; the "past" (-ed
etc.) and everything else. As observed by Alex HOUSEN, this is not
necessarily enough evidence in and of itself. However there are also
functional arguments.

First, the so-called "present" tense actually is very commonly used for
all time references:

Past: "This guy walks up to me and he says . . . "
Present: "Lucretia knows the answer."
Future: "I leave for Milwaukee next Tuesday."

The only grammatical category that directly specifies sequence in time
relative to the time of speaking is the "past."

Secondly, "will" is a very specific kind of future, like amny of the
other modals. There will probably be arguments from other native
speakers here, but my intuition is that it prototypically has something
to do with the first decision or initiation of a suggestion that
something will happen. There are situations where the "will" future
would not be acceptable to refer to future events.

For example. You arrive at someones house, and notice the house is
decorated and the table set. You ask: "Oh what is happening?" The
response (at least from a native speaker) would not be:

We'll have a party.

Why not, if will indicates future tense? However, if someone says, "What
should we do to honor Lucretia?" it would be OK to say:

I know. We'll have a party.

This is because the sentence expresses the initiation of the idea, and
not just a reporting of a forgone decision.

These are the arguments I give my English Grammar class.

Of course there are a lot of other contexts and nuances to "will." In
any case it is clear that it carries a lot more semantic "baggage" than
just "future time." This is true for many of the other auxilaries, so it
seems appropriate to call it a modal rather than a tense marker.
Thomas E. Payne
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
Voice: 541 342-6706
Fax: 541 346-3917
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Message 3: English future tense

Date: Wed, 5 Feb 1997 10:20:51 -0600 (CST)
From: George Elgin, Suzette Haden Elgin <>
Subject: English future tense

 The real problem, in my opinion, is not in the future but in the
so-called "present tense marker." Children -- and non-native speakers of
English, trying to learn the language -- go through torment over this bit
about "-s" being the present tense marker, only to have the teacher then
say "Your bus leaves in fifteen minutes, so hurry up and finish your work!"
I think linguists have all this perfectly straight, but teachers don't (and
no reason why they should, given the garbage they're forced to learn.)

One comment on the "will" as straightforward future marker, however. I
realize that I, like Joe Foster, am suspect because of being a native Ozark
English speaker. However, it seems to me that in all dialects of English
you get this kind of thing:

 Q: "All right, she makes you mad, but why? What does she do that's
so annoying?"

 A: "She will just sit there hour after hour and do nothing, till I
could just *scream*!"

It occurs most often with the contraction, of course -- "She'll" -- but
that's also "will." And there is no corresponding "going to" sentence. It
seems to me that this very common usage -- which is certainly not future,
but some sort of "timeless habitual" or some such thing -- makes "will" as
unambiguous future marker dubious.

Suzette Haden Elgin
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Message 4: future in English

Date: Thu, 6 Feb 97 12:41:41 +0100
From: harder <>
Subject: future in English

I agree with Alex Housen that much of the problem is definitional, and also
that once you look more closely at the forms that everybody calls 'future
tense', the will-form in English is remarkably similar apart from not being
coded morphologically.

However, there is an aspect that is often overlooked and that is implicit in
the traditional debate: the role of paradigmatic contrast. By that
criterion, the future is (in all languages that I know of) structurally
distinct from past/present tenses - since the future is typically combined
with present meaning(-and-form) and in some cases also past
meaning(and-form): ahead-of-now vs. ahead-of-then; the traditional term for
ahead-of-then is future-in-the-past.

This is true of French and other morphological futures (cf. also Vet 1981)
and thus the traditional tripartition into past-present-future does not
generally reflect the way language structures tense meaning. But id there is
a language that has a clear-cut three-way contrast past-present-future I'd
be very interested to know about it!

This makes it harder to find a really good criterion for what a 'true future
tense' is. But if you operate with a scale where mortphological expression
plus a separate paradigmatic slot for future meaning counts positively,
French gets more future-tense-points than English: there is a paradigmatic
slot where you can either choose morphological future or go-future (in 'il
ira le faire' the word for 'go' cannot have future meaning, hence the two
futures cannot be combined). In English, 'will' is part of the modal
paradigm and futurity thus has no privileged position.

But English gets more future-tense-points than German (and other Germanic
languages), because simple forms have a 'non-futurity' constraint as part of
their interpretation: although Dickens could say 'do you go to London?*'
meaning 'will you go to London?', the structural entrenchment of futurity in
English is such that by not choosing to express future (by 'will' or 'going
to' or any other suitable way) the speaker obligatorily chooses a non-future

So the question of whether English has a future may not have a clear answer:
structural facts are messier than linguists would sometimes like to think.


Harder, Peter: Functional Semantics. A Theory of Meaning, Structure and
Tense in English, Mouton de Gruyter 1996.
Vet, Co (1981) Some Arguments against the Division of Time into Past,
POresent and Future, Antwerp Papers in Linguistics 23: 153-65

Peter Harder, English Dept, U of Copenhagen
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Message 5: Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future

Date: Wed, 5 Feb 1997 22:12:49 +0200
From: Yehuda N. Falk <>
Subject: Re: 8.161, Disc: The English Future

The debate over whether or not English "has" a future tense is in some sense
a non-issue. The problem, as is frequently the case in linguistics, is that
we have inherited vague terminology from traditional grammar. I think the
following comments from Joseph Foster and Alex Housen make the point very

Foster writes
>	In short, there is no English Future. I join Carl Mills'
>expression of dismay at the continued confusion of semantics and
>syntax~morphology. ... 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.

Housen writes
>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)....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). 

There is no disagreement over whether there is a morphological future tense
in English: clearly there is not. The question is rather whether the term
"tense" should be taken to refer to a morphological class or a semantic
class. The problem is that such debates over terminology are lost on the
general public. (This is also true, and perhaps even clearer, concerning
"language"/"dialect" and the "Ebonics" debate; I don't think the general
public can understand the only real answer that linguists can give
concerning whether or not AAVE is a dialect of English or a distinct
language -- namely, that it is a meaningless question.)

 Yehuda N. Falk
 Department of English, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
 Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem, Israel

"And because, in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than
Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere. They became farmers in the 
fields of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped." --Arthur C. Clarke,
2001: A Space Odyssey
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