Does the English Language Have a Future Tense?

'English has no future tense, because it has no future tense inflections'

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"English can employ various different constructions, each with its own meaning, to talk about future time" (The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2014). (Si Huynh/Getty Images)

Legend has it that the final words of French grammarian Dominique Bouhours were, "Je vais ou je vas mourir; l'un et l'autre se dit, ou se disent." In English that would be, "I am about to--or I am going to--die. Either expression is used."

As it happens, there are also multiple ways of expressing future time in English. Here are six of the most common methods.

  1. the simple present: We leave tonight for Atlanta.
  1. the present progressive: We're leaving the kids with Louise.
  2. the modal verb will (or shall) with the base form of a verb: I'll leave you some money.
  3. the modal verb will (or shall) with the progressive: I'll be leaving you a check.
  4. a form of be with the infinitive: Our flight is to leave at 10:00 p.m.
  5. a semi-auxiliary such as to be going to or to be about to with the base form of a verb: We are going to leave your father a note.
But time is not quite the same as grammatical tense, and with that thought in mind many contemporary linguists insist that, properly speaking, the English language has no future tense.
 
  • "[M]orphologically English has no future form of the verb in addition to present and past forms. . . . In this grammar, then, we do not talk about the future as a formal category . . .."
    (Randolph Quirk et al., A Grammar of Contemporary English. Longman, 1985)
  • "[W]e do not recognise a future tense for English. . . . [T]here is no grammatical category that can properly be analysed as a future tense. More particularly, we argue that will (and likewise shall) is an auxiliary of mood, not tense."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • "There is no future tense ending for English verbs as there is in other languages . . .."
    (Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • "English has no future tense, because it has no future tense inflections, in the way that many other languages do, nor any other grammatical form or combination of forms that can exclusively be called a future tense."
    (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)

    Such denials of a future tense may sound paradoxical (if not downright pessimistic), but the central argument hinges on the way we mark and define tense. I'll let David Crystal explain:

    How many tenses of the verb are there in English? If your automatic reaction is to say "three, at least"--past, present, and future--you are showing the influence of the Latinate grammatical tradition. . . .

    [I]n traditional grammar, [t]ense was thought of as the grammatical expression of time, and identified by a particular set of endings on the verb. In Latin there were present tense endings . . ., future tense endings . . ., perfect tense endings . . ., and several others marking different tense forms.

    English, by contrast, has only one inflectional form to express time: the past tense marker (typically -ed), as in walked, jumped, and saw. There is therefore a two-way tense contrast in English: I walk vs I walked--present tense vs past tense. . . .

    However people find it extremely difficult to drop the notion of "future tense" (and related notions, such as imperfect, future perfect, and pluperfect tenses) from their mental vocabulary, and to look for other ways of talking about the grammatical realities of the English verb.
    (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

    So from this perspective (and keep in mind that not all linguists wholeheartedly agree), English doesn't have a future tense. But is this something that students and instructors need to be concerned about? Consider Martin Endley's advice for EFL teachers:

    [T]here is no harm done if you continue to refer to the English future tense in your classroom. Students have quite enough to think about without being troubled by such matters and there is little sense in adding to their burden needlessly. Yet, underlying the dispute is an important issue that does have an obvious bearing on the classroom, namely, the difference between the way the present and past tenses are marked on the one hand, and the way the (so-called) future tense is marked on the other.
    (Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar: A Guide for EFL Teachers. Information Age, 2010)
    Fortunately, English does have a future--with plenty of ways for expressing future time.

     

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