English has several means to express future time references and related ideas.
- Future tense formed with will plus the base form of the verb, as in "She will go."
- Future formed with shall plus the base form. This is more formal, and is more commonly used for suggestions ("shall we go?") and offers ("Shall I buy you something?"). In older and more literary style, it is used for future imperatives, as in "You shall not contradict me!"
- The immediate future formed with going to plus the verb, e.g, "She is going to go soon." This is more informal and is more often used for events that the speaker expects to happen relatively soon.
- Present tense forms with a future time phrase, e.g., "The train leaves at four," or, "The president arrives tomorrow."
- Formally, the copula + infinitive construction, e.g., "The president is to leave tonight". This is formal, and often implies "should" or "is supposed to", i.e., it expresses the speaker's expectation, advise, or sense of obligation.
- Modal verbs like may or might for future potential events, e.g., "She might leave."
1 Future tense controversy
Some linguists, particularly many functionalists, do not consider the English future verb forms to be an actual tense. Other linguists, including many from other theoretical frameworks, still regard the future as an actual tense. Here is a brief overview of arguments for and against; much of this is drawn from discussion on a linguistics website (linguistlist.org). For more information, please refer to the sources cited below.
- 1. The morphological argument
The main argument is that present and past tenses are formed with morphemes, but the future tense is formed differently, with a modal will (or other forms). Because it is not formed by morphological suffixes like the other tenses (like past -ed), the argument goes, it is not a tense like the others.
“. . . English has never had a future tense. There is no suffix that the English speaker can attach to a verb to make it future” (Berk, 1999:105)
Advocates of the future tense would counter that some tenses could be formed morphologically, and others lexically, and that such a difference in surface marking of syntactic features does not necessarily mean that some are tenses and some are not.
- 2. The “modal” argument
The future is formed with will (or shall), which is a modal. Modals indicate the speaker’s perspective toward an action (or state) expressed by a verb. Therefore, skeptics claim, this cannot be a tense if it is formed with a modal. However, historical linguistic evidence and other evidence has been cited, showing that will / shall have primarily served to express future time, with modal uses being secondary (Dahl, 1985, Comrie, 1989, and others; see below).
- 3. Multiple expressions of future
Future ideas are expressed in multiple ways. Besides the will future, we could express future ideas with the present, e.g., “My train leaves / is leaving tomorrow” or “My train is going to leave tomorrow”. Since will is not the only way to express future, some assume that there is no single default future form, and thus, no real future tense.
“. . . while there are numerous ways of indicating future time, there is no grammatical category that can properly be analysed as a future tense” (Huddleston & Pullam, 2002, 209)
However, the the present (or present progressive) cannot indicate future without support of a near-future time phrase, and present plus adverbial time phrase and is going to express near future, not the same as the future expressed by will. Also, will is the only way to form futures with all verbs, and other ways of expressing near future cannot be used with cognitive verbs and other verbs; one cannot say *going to know, *is knowing tonight, *know tonight, *is going to tend to do..., is going to seem to do, etc. (Declerck, 1991). The will future can refer to future all by itself without any help from adverbials or other phrases.
- 4. What is tense?
Tense does not refer to time itself, but to the speaker’s perspective toward an event or state. In that case, it is claimed that a speaker cannot express such a perspective toward an event that has not yet happened. Therefore, it is claimed, expressions of future are not actual events, so how can speakers have a perspective toward events that have not happened? This argument, however, confuses future with another semantic distinction: irrealis versus realis. Realis (a semantics term) refers to events that are factual or that have happened, and would include present and past verbs. Irrealis refers to events that have not happened or that are not factual; this would include future expressions, near future expressions, expressions with modals, infinitives, imperatives, conditionals / hypotheticals, and such. To say that non-factual future events cannot be a tense depends on how one defines the speaker’s perspective toward future events. Generally, that’s what tense is, but the concept of speaker’s perspective toward an event is open to interpretation, debate, and differing definitions. So this boils down to a theoretical question of how exactly to define tense.
Some of these arguments are summarized from http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/8/8-161.html. Here’s an excerpt from one of the linguists:
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 Future Simple of French. French, too, uses the Present Tense and a periphrastic construction with aller to indicate futurity. However, the status of the Future 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.
2 See also
- Berk, L. M. (1999). English syntax. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Comrie, B. 1989. On identifying future tenses, in Abraham, W. & Janssen, T. (eds.), Tempus - Aspekt - Modus: die lexikalischen und grammatischen formen in den Germanischen Sprachen, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 51-63.
- Huddleston, R. & Pullam, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: CUP
- Dahl, D. 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 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.