Is there no Future Tense in English?

Linguistics is a hobby of mine, though I’m by no means even quasi-competent in it. I just know a smattering of stuff related to the field that I have picked up over the last few years since I started studying Greek (and, more recently, German).

One thing I have heard repeatedly is that the English language has no future tense. Isn’t that statement – the English language has no future tense – as it stands, false? Or at least inaccurate? What I mean is, wouldn’t it be much more accurate to say that there is no inflectional morphemes in English that denote the future tense. In other words, even though there isn’t an inflectional pattern in English for the future tense as there is for the past (“-ed”) and the present/non-past (“-ing”), one can still legitimately speak of a future tense in English, because while tense is marked out in English by inflection, it isn’t exclusively relegated to inflectional morphemes on the main verb; auxiliary verbs can also denote tense. Thus, there is such a thing as “future tense” in English, but it is found in auxiliaries rather than morphemes.

10 responses

  1. Actually, no Indo-European language has an inherited morphological future tense: in PIE, of the tenses proper there were only past and non-past (present). Originally, to mark something in the future outside of context would have required a temporal adverb. Later there were particles that apparently took on this function late in the languages, like the -s- that became the sigmatic future of Greek and Sanskrit. Otherwise, typically desiderative moods such as the optative and subjunctive (the Latin future and a simple Sanskrit future formation) commonly gave way to future meaning in several daughter languages. But these were originally not part of the morphological system proper, even post-PIE in the case of some language families.

    Ok, back to English: some of the later Germanic languages, as you anticipated, began to use the modal verbs to form periphrasis. As usual, Gothic shows the Proto-Germanic situation best, typically translating the Greek future tense as a simple present without any modal. In so-called West Germanic (including English and German), more or less taking the “desiderative” route, the modals meaning ‘I will/wish/intend’ expressing something unfulfilled but expected came to be a part of the grammatical system, as did the modal meaning ‘am obligated’ (shall). North Germanic (the Scandinavian languages) used munu probably originally ‘have in mind’, as well as skullu ‘am obligated/determined’ and vilja ‘will, want’.

    We tend to wonder how those languages got along without a future. But the fascinating thing is that the future periphrasis in English is slowly waning, while in German it’s almost been eclipsed in common speech. In both cases, it’s the present tense that is taking over: think of the English way of expressing a future action of going to the movies: “I am going to the movies tonight.” That’s a present tense verb being used as the auxiliary to create a future, with the adverb “tonight” being the only marker that it’s future and not present! And in German, most people do not say, “Ich wille heute Abend ins Kino gehen,” which is akin to English, “I will go to the movies tonight,” but “Ich gehe heute Abend ins Kino gehen,” which uses the simple present of “go” in order to indicate the future! And of course this leaves the old “future” auxiliary “will” to resume its former meaning of “intend”, as in “I will go to the movies tonight.” Fascinating how cyclical this stuff is!

    Sorry, I’m sure this was more than you asked for, but maybe someone will find it interesting. ;-)

    • Your point about the German language is entirely correct, but your German grammar is not!

      Your first example should be: “Ich werde heute Abend ins Kino gehen”,
      which translates to “I will go to the cinema tonight”.
      “Ich will heute Abend ins Kino gehen” on the other hand means “I want to go to the cinema tonight” (altough there used to be a time when “wollen” could be used to indicate the future tense, it does not do so anymore!)

      Your second example has a superfluous word: “Ich gehe heute Abend ins Kino” is correct.

  2. But I realize I never answered your question. It’s splitting hairs, really: we have a future “tense”, a morphosyntactic marking, but we don’t have an inherited, inflected future. English is increasingly analytical, with few inflectional markers, so it’s a decidedly diachronic take on things to say that we have no future tense, while a somewhat dubious statement synchronically. If that makes any sense.

  3. I think you’re going wrong here when you talk about inflectional morphemes or auxiliary verbs “denoting” tense. Inflectional morphology and morphosyntax are not a compositional affair where the denotation of wholes is a function of the denotation of the parts and their manner of composition; they’re about how grammatical rules arbitrarily restrict how phrases and sentences may be constructed. Grammatical tense is not a set of lexical items that enables you to talk about the past, present or future; it’s a set of rules that demand that sentences about the past be constructed differently from sentences about the present or future.

    So for example, in a language with evidentiality, it’s not that we have some morphemes that enable speakers to code the source of information for their statement if they so choose; rather, it is that the grammar of the language requires sentences to inflectionally encode it.

    So English has tense because, as a general rule, its grammar requires that sentences about the past be formed differently than sentences about the present or future: “My daughter goes to college today/tomorrow” vs. “My daughter went to college for five years.” It doesn’t have a tense distinction between present or future because, as a general rule, it doesn’t require sentences about the future to be constructed differently from sentences about the present: “My son goes to college now/ten years from now.”

  4. It’s all about known and unknown information. Past, present, and continuous are morphologically marked because they are different versions of verbs: what already happened, what is happening, and what happens, whereas the future is more related to modality.

    Think about it on a semantic level: saying that something “will” happen is really not stating a fact. You may desire it to happen, you may expect it to happen or strongly predict it to happen, but it is really only a supposition. Even if I say “I will take my next breath now” is only a fact (semantically) while it happens and afterwards, but not before. Surely, at any time a meteor could crash down on me or I could get an aneurysm or something, preventing that next breath from being taken. But once I’ve taken it, it can be expressed factually.

    I was taught that the future “tense” is really just an “aspect” (like perfect or progressive aspect). I learned that the word “will” is a helping/linking verb just like can/could/would/should/etc. In fact, a grammar textbook I have for ESL/EFL teachers (“The Grammar Book”, Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999) describes the word “will” as the Historic Present equivalent of “would” (Historic Past). That is, really, what you’re stating in a present-tense manner that there IS a strong desire or prediction that something WILL happen. Its factuality is not assured simply from the grammatical construction, but “will” is the strongest way that English has to express it’s probability.

    Also, as mentioned before, there are many ways to express the future, such as “going to” for immediacy, in the present progressive and adverb phrases (“Next week I am visiting my mother”), or even the simple present tense (“We get paid Friday”).

    This was all something very profound to me — “the future is merely an aspect.” I teach my ESL students that they should consider this when thinking about how they see their own personal futures. Not as facts but merely desires and predictions that need planning and linear action if they are to be fulfilled.

    • When the future is known information, such as when we’re
      talking about it within the context of a schedule, we can say “Next
      week I’m to visit my mother”, or “We’re to get paid Friday”. This
      “be to” construction only sounds right when used with a time
      adverbial, so “I’m to see the movie” doesn’t sound right.
      Concerning intentionality, I see a continuum from “will xxxx” (most
      intentional), “be gonna xxxx” (less intentional), to “be to xxxx”
      (most predetermined). Regarding grammatical ranking, I’d put the
      “be to xxxx” at the same rank as “be xxxx-ing”, the present
      progressive aspect. It even sounds natural to say “I’m to run
      tomorrow, I’m cycling today, and I swam yesterday”, putting the
      past tense along the future-present-past continuum.

  5. future in English is not represented morphologically…how
    do you justify this statement considering the functions of future
    time

    • Verbs in English have a present and past form that usually changes the spelling of the verb itself, which is an aspect of morphology. To express the future, English verbs have no spelling change for the purpose, thus, the future is not morphologically represented. We can use modality (could, will, might and so on) to express the future, or present progressive aspect (I am leaving tomorrow) or simple present (The spring term starts in two weeks). If English had a morphologically expressed future, there would be another form of verb for that purpose. That’s how I understand it anyway.

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