Future Markers of English

Term Paper, 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Tense vs. Time
2.1. Problems with the Concept of a Future Tense in English
2.2. Morphological Criteria
2.3. Conceptual Objection

3. Primary Futures
3.1. will-future
3.1.1. will and simple futurity
3.1.2. will as a modal auxiliary
3.2. be going to
3.2.1. be going to and present evidence
3.2.2. be going to and present intention

4. Aspectual Futures
4.1. Present Continuous
4.1.1. Specifications of the Progressive Future Present
4.1.2. Progressive Future Present and Adverbial Modification
4.2. Simple Present
4.2.1. Specifications of the Simple Future Present
4.2.2. Restrictions of the simple present tense with future reference

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

English is said to have only two tenses: present and past. This classification is based on the notion that a tense can only be marked by bound morphemes. A typical example would be the straightforward morphological use of ‘-bo’ or ‘-e-‘ as future markers in Latin verb forms such as ‘cantabo’ or ‘audiet’. But since the ancient Romans a lot has changed and morphological future markers lose ground in favour of periphrastic constructions. As Comrie notes, “[i]n European languages, in particular, the future tense seems to be weak or non-existent as a grammatical category” (48).

This paper is concerned with the question whether English has such a thing as a future tense and if this is the case, how it is formed. As a fact, “it is not uncommon for a language to have more than one gram which has future as a use” (Bybee, Perkins and Pagliuca 243). As we shall see, the English language possesses a wide range of future markers which in general only contribute to the variety of a language: “[T]he continued vialibilty of multiple forms in a given language is insured by differences in the range of uses to which each may be put” (ibid.). In this context I shall give an overview of the tense/time debate which has heated up amongst scholars and try to differentiate between the main forms of English future markers.

2. Tense vs. Time

“Traditional grammar usually presents English as having a future tense, namely the form using the auxiliary will (for some speakers, also shall) and the citation form of the verb, as is John will leave tomorrow” (Comrie 46). Others distinguish between “future tense” (inlcuding will and shall) and “futurish forms” such as the present progressive or the simple present in their use of future reference (Declerck) which differ in their relation to the present. Among linguists, this view of future as a tense is highly controversial and, according to some, based on incomplete assumptions.

2.1. Problems with the Concept of a Future Tense in English

There are several objections to the concept of a future tense in the English language. First, “the auxiliary will has a number of other uses in addition to the expression of future time reference, in particular modal uses which do not necessarily have future time reference” (Comrie 46f.), for example, it “can be used to indicate volition with present time reference (he will go swimming in dangerous waters)” (ibid. 47). In fact, “will, which is probably the best candidate for a neutral future marker, can be used without any future interpretation: They will be in Amsterdam now” (Börjars and Burridge 148).

Secondly, the use of ‘will’ for future notions is by no means absolute as in some cases the present tense is enough to denote future meaning, for example in timetables and schedules. As Börjars and Burridge sum up: “There are, then, so many ways of referring to the future in English that it does not make sense to refer to any one element as the future tense” (148). Consequently, it is difficult to demonstrate a singular future tense in English.

2.2. Morphological Criteria

This concept of a future time only is widely supported, for instance in recent university grammar books such as Börjars and Burridge, who state that in English, “[t]he characteristic of a finite verb form is that it carries tense, i.e. it is morphologically marked as either present or past” (Börjars and Burridge 146), not including any reference to a future tense. As a result, there is “need to distinguish between tense – a matter of morphological marking – and time – a matter of when events take place” (ibid.).

Verb forms such as ‘plays’ or ‘went’ are clearly defined as present or past due to their morphological features: “[T]ense is a formal category which, in English, is either marked with the suffix –ed or lacks that marker, so that, by definition, there can only be two tenses: past and non-past” (Wekker 8). Future in itself is not represented by such morphological markers. Should one wish to express future notions, one is required to employ so-called periphrastic contructions. This means the use of indirect contructions, namely auxiliaries such as ‘will’ or ‘shall’ which in this particular use denote future meanings.

In order to be exact, when considering morphological markers in a verb form only one discovers that there is no such thing as a future tense. Linguistically speaking, no one would ever define the present perfect, for instance, as a tense of its own, because of the periphrastic construction which bears similiarities in distribution (for example the non-absolute of of the auxiliary ‘have’, which is not only used in the present perfect, just like the above-mentioned non-restrictive use of the auxiliary ‘will’ for future time references) to the future constructions. Holophrastic verb forms can only include simple present and simple past and if one takes these markers as criteria for defining tense, I agree that there can only be the notion of future time. Nevertheless, I shall include in this paper references of linguists who refer to a future tense, bearing in mind the reasons for their differentiation, the most convincing of which I found to be Wekker when he comprehensibly states that “important generalizations are lost if past, present and future are not dealt with as belonging to the same category” (8). He disapproves of the use of “the morphological criterion” because it “is overridden not only by considerations of a semantic nature but also by syntactic evidence which [...] favours the treatment of future as one of the terms in the systems of tense” (8 f.).

2.3. Conceptual Objection

Another interesting reason why some scholars do not refer to the future as a tense is what Comrie calls a “conceptual objection” (43): There is an assumed symmetry between the past and the future about the present when imagining a time line diagram. The past, one the one hand, “is more definite than the future” (44) insofar as it “subsumes what may already have taken place and, barring science fiction, is immutable” (43). “The future, however, is necessarily more speculative, in that any prediction we make about the future might be changed by intervening events, including our own conscious intervention” (43). Basically, this statement employs the notion that future in itself is never purely temporal, but always includes elements of prediction of various degrees. Comries takes this further when he states: “Following on from this, one might argue that while the difference between past and present is indeed one of tense, that between future on the one hand and past and present on the other should be treated as a difference of mood rather than one of tense” (44).

The treatment of future as either a tense, a time reference or even a mood shows the discrepancies among scholars when it comes to a definite classification. Bearing in mind the various arguments for and against one of these positions, one can see that there is neither an absolute suggestion nor an immediate solution.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Future Markers of English
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar )
Tense, Aspect and Modality
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tense, aspect, modality, future markers, future, Zeit, Aspekt, Modalität, Futur, Englisch, Zukunft
Quote paper
Katharina Czerwinski (Author), 2009, Future Markers of English, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/205812


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