Future Tense Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

future tense
Four ways of expressing the future in English.

In English grammar, the future is a verb tense (or form--see the notes by Pinker and Rissanen below) indicating action that has not yet begun.

There is no separate inflection (or ending) for the future in English. The simple future is usually expressed by placing the auxiliary will or shall in front of the base form of a verb ("I will leave tonight"). Other ways to express the future include (but are not limited to) the use of:

  1. a present form of be plus going to: "We are going to leave."
  2. the present progressive: "They are leaving tomorrow."
  3. the simple present: "The children leave on Wednesday."

Examples and Observations

  • "Never believe any war will be smooth and easy."
    (Winston Churchill)
  • "Nothing will work unless you do."
    (Maya Angelou)
  • "I will not charge admission to the bathroom."
    (Bart Simpson, The Simpsons)
  • "I'll be back."
    (Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator)
  • Scully: Homer, we're going to ask you a few simple yes or no questions. Do you understand?
    Homer: Yes. (Lie detector blows up.)
    (The Simpsons)
  • "You will find happiness,' he told her. They were at lunch. The winter held days of sunshine, noons of infinite calm. He broke a piece of bread to cover his confusion, dismayed at the tense of his verb."
    (James Salter, Light Years. Random House, 1975)
  • "And from the sun we are going to find more and more uses for that energy whose power we are so conscious of today."
    (President John Kennedy, remarks at the Hanford Electric Generating Plant in Hanford, Washington, September 26, 1963)
  • "I am about to--or I am going to--die: either expression is used."
    (Last words of Dominique Bouhours, a 17-century French grammarian)

The Status of the Future Tense in English

  • "Some languages have three tenses: past, present, and future. . . . English does not have a future tense, at least not as an inflectional category." (Barry J. Blake, All About Language. Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • "[T]he future tense has a different status from the other tenses. Rather than being a form of the verb, it is expressed by the modal auxiliary will. It's no accident that the future shares its syntax with words for necessity (must), possibility (can, may, might), and moral obligation (should, ought to), because what will happen is conceptually related to what must happen, what can happen, what should happen, and what we intend to happen. The word will itself is ambiguous between future tense and an expression of determination (as in Sharks or no sharks, I will swim to Alcatraz), and its homonyms show up in free will, strong-willed, and to will something to happen. The same ambiguity between the future and the intended can be found in another marker for the future tense, going to or gonna. It's as if the language is affirming the ethos that people have the power to make their own futures." (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. Viking, 2007)
  • "Many recent grammarians do not accept 'future' as a tense because it is expressed periphrastically with auxiliaries and because its meaning is partly modal." (Matti Rissanen, "Syntax," Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 3, ed. by Roger Lass. Cambridge University Press, 2000)

    The Difference Between ​Shall and Will

    "The difference between the two verbs is that shall is rather formal-sounding, and a little old-fashioned. What's more, it is mostly used in British English, and normally only with first-person singular or plural subjects. Recent research has shown that the use of shall is declining rapidly both in the UK and in the US." (Bas Aarts, Oxford Modern English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2011)

    Evolving Future Constructions

    "[T]he original job description of these two verbs [shall and will] was not to mark future either--shall meant 'to owe' . . . and will meant 'to desire, want' . . .. Both verbs were pressed into grammatical service just as (be) going to is currently. Shall is the oldest future marker. It has become rather rare in Australian English, having been pushed out by will.

    Now gonna is ousting will in exactly the same way. Just as ordinary words wear out over time, so too do grammatical ones. We are always in the business of seeking new future constructions and there are plenty of fresh recruits on the market. Wanna and halfta are both potential future auxiliaries. But their take-over will never happen in our lifetime--you'll be relieved about this, I'm sure." (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)