Future tense

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A future tense is a tense which indicates that an event occurs after the moment of speech (cf. Comrie 1985).

According to Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (1994: 244), a future tense expresses “a prediction on the part of the speaker that the situation in the proposition, which refers to an event taking place after the moment of speech, will hold.”

Alternatively, a future tense can be regarded as a tense which indicates that the topic time is located after the moment of speech (cf. Klein 1994).

Future tenses in European languages

The future tenses of European languages can be classified according to their sources of grammaticalization (cf. Dahl 2000: 317). The English auxiliary will, for instance, developed from a marker which was originally restricted to intention-based future time reference into a general future marker. Besides such auxiliaries and other light verbs which extended their basic meanings, bound morphemes are also found as primary markers of future time reference. Those markers represent an advanced stage of grammaticalization (Dahl 2000: 325).

An inflectional future is found in several modern Romance languages, e.g in Italian, French and Spain. These future forms derive from the Latin Infinitive + habere (have) construction. The English going to-construction is typical of several future tenses in Germanic and Romance languages such as Dutch, French and Portuguese. The construction is based on the meaning of the verb go followed by an infinitive. It originates from an intention-based construction expressing future time reference. In some languages the meaning has been extended from intention-based non-remote future time reference to non-intentional future time reference. In most of these languages there is an asymmetry between the markers of future time references and other tenses. In English, past tense is marked with a suffix while the future is marked by an auxiliary verb. SImilar systems are found in most Germanic languages. In general, these constructions are preferred for prediction-based rather than intention-based future time reference. Balkan languages prefer constructions based on the meanings 'want' and 'have' to refer to the future. Other future time markers originate from verbs meaning 'seize', 'take' and 'begin'.

Future time reference in English

While English expresses past and present tense with affixes, future time reference is often encoded with analytic strategies (with modal auxiliaries and semi-modals). Moreover, under specific circumstances the present tense can used with future times reference.

According to Leech and Svartvik (2002), the most common future construction of English is the one expressed with the modal auxiliaries will or shall followed by a base form of the verb (Leech 2002: 78). Furthermore the be going to-construction is commonly used to refer to the future. In English as well as in other languages, futurity may be combined with other tenses or aspects to express “more subtle shades of meaning” (Hurford 1994: 77).

Will/shall + infinitive

Ex.: He will score a goal.

The will-future is used to make predictions (1) and prophetic statements (2):

(1) Tomorrow`s weather will be beautiful. (2) In ten years time, the average temperature will increase.

Given that one cannot be certain about future happenings, the usage of futurity always implies a speaker`s attitude. While will can be combined with subjects of all three persons, the usage of shall is restricted to first-person pronouns. Otherwise the construction would rather imply a threat than a neutral prediction:

(3) One day he will die. (Leech 1971: 58)

According to Quirk et al. (1985), there are three different predictive senses of the will-construction. The common future predictive sense implies that futurity depends on the fulfilment of future conditions:

(4) You will get sick when you go for a walk in the rain.

The meaning of the present predictive sense is comparable to the meaning of must and implies logical necessity:

(5) That will be the postman. [on hearing the doorbell ring]

The third meaning, namely the habitual predictive meaning, expresses personal habits or characteristics:

(6) He will be very shy, when you talk to him.

The volitional range the will-construction covers intentions, willingness and insistence and thus extends from weak to strong volition (Quirk et al. 1985: 228).

Be going to + infinitive

Ex.: He is going to score a goal.

The going to-future is generally found in informal spoken English. These constructions indicate the future as a fulfilment of the present (Leech 2002: 78). Two more specific meanings can be distinguished: The first one expresses 'future fulfilment of present intention' and thus is only found with human subjects:

(7) Leila is going to lend us her camera.

The second meaning describes the future as a result of present cause and appears in a wider range of contexts because it is found with human, animal and inanimate subjects:

(8) She is going to have a baby. (Quirk et al. 1985: 214)

Both meanings imply that the factor leading to the future event is already present. Be going to-constructions often imply an intention and thus an expectation that the intention will be carried out (Leech 1971: 860).

Present Progressive

Ex.: I'm going to the movies tonight.

The present progressive with future meaning refers to a future event anticipated in the present. In contrast to the going to-construction, it does not imply a present intention or cause but rather an arrangement which has already been made. Leech (1971) describes the progressive construction in its futurate use as describing a “future event anticipated by virtue of a present plan, programme or arrangement” (Leech 1971: 62). The main difference between be going to and present progressive constructions is that in the latter case something has been predetermined. Consequently, progressive constructions often refer to the near future while going to-constructions refer to the distant future. As a result of the implied plan or arrangement, the usage of progressive constructions is almost limited to verbs involving human agents. Since these constructions can imply present as well as future meaning, a time adverbial is often helpful to specify the meaning:

(9) They are washing the dishes now/later. (Quirk et al. 1973: 48)

Simple Present

Ex.: The train leaves tomorrow at eight.

The simple present with future time meaning is frequently used in conditional or temporal subordinate clauses starting with if, even, unless, once, until etc. If this is not the case and the simple present construction is used in a main clause, it implies absolute certainty since the future is determined in advance by calendar or timetable:

(10) Today is Tuesday and tomorrow is Wednesday. (Quirk et al. 1973: 48)

The speaker represents the future as a fact without any doubt about it. Simple present constructions can furthermore express a plan or arrangement which is unalterable:

(11) We start for Istanbul tonight. (Leech 1971: 66)

Since the simple present with future meaning refers to a definite future it is generally accompanied by a time adverbial.

Will/Shall + progressive infinitive

Ex.: I will be driving into the city tomorrow.

Will/Shall + progressive infinitive constructions combine future time reference and a temporal frame associated with the progressive:

(12) When you reach the end of the bridge, I`ll be waiting there.

The construction furthermore refers to a temporal state in the future:

(13) This time next week I shall be sailing across the North Sea. (Leech 1971: 67)

There is another possibility of interpreting the constructions, namely as a “future as a matter of course” (Quirk et al. 1985: 216). This interpretation does not allow volition, intention, or promise and thus presents the future as something independent of all factors that could influence it. The construction is furthermore said to appear more polite and tactful, especially in questions.


  • Dahl, Östen. 2000. Tense and Aspect in the Languages of Europe. Empirical Approaches to Language Typology: Eurotyp 20-6. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter Verlag.
  • Hilpert, Martin. 2008. Germanic Future Constructions: A Usage-Based Approach to Grammaticalization. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Hurford, R. James. 1994. Grammar. A Student`s Guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Leech, Geoffrey. 1971. Meaning and the English Verb. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
  • Leech, Geoffrey and Jan Svartvik. 2002. A Communicative Grammar of English. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
  • Quirk, Randolph and Sidney Greenbaum. 1973. A University Grammar of English. London: Longman Group Limited.
  • Quirk, Randolph et al. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman Group Limited.

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