LINGUIST List 8.161

Tue Feb 4 1997

Disc: The English Future

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  • Joseph F Foster, Re: 8.147, Disc: English Future
  • 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 "tenses": My train can leave at 6. might 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

    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= s.

    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.

    Alex HOUSEN 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 Email: