What's will?

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Yesterday's email brought this sensible question from Judith Parker, a middle-school teacher at The Philadelphia School:

In the grammar text we are perusing, the concept of modals has raised its head.  The words "The nice thing about modern grammarians is that they have reduced the number of TENSES in English to just two, PRESENT and PAST.  Notice even WILL (formerly considered to represent the future tense) is really a PRESENT TENSE MODAL expressing present time intent or will…..)"

The class and I are perplexed.  How wide-spread is this thinking?  Can you explain this, particularly the WHY this change came about, and let us know how widely accepted this concept is?  It has not crept into most grammar books that kids use.  I told them that I would ask a linguist about this since my linguistic studies are in a distant past.

Let me try to give a short answer to start with.

It's convenient to talk about past, present, and future time, and it's convenient to call the commonly-associated English verb forms past, present, and future tense: "we liked it; we like it; we'll like it." But when you look more carefully at the whole pattern of possibilities for English tensed verbs, I think that you (and your class) will see the force of the argument that English doesn't really have a future tense form, even though it has many ways to express a future-time meaning.

it's true that a common way to express a future-time meaning is indeed to use the auxiliary verb will — but from a syntactic point of view, will is used in the same way as the class of words generally called "modal auxiliaries", such as can, may, might, must, should, and would.

Furthermore, a closer look at the meanings of will suggests that it doesn't really express future time, but rather has the same sort of relationship to time-meanings that (for example) may does.

The terminology remains variable, but at least since Otto Jespersen a hundred years ago, many grammarians working on English have taken all this to mean that English has only two basic tenses, present and past. (Well, Jespersen called the past tense by the old-fashioned name "preterit" — but as I said, the terminology varies.)

OK, for those of you who are still with me, let's go on to a longer answer.

First, what does it mean to say that will has the syntactic distribution of a modal auxiliary? Consider this paradigm of 16 singular finite (i.e. tensed) auxiliary+verb forms in standard contemporary English, taken from p. 105 of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

Modal Perfect Progressive Passive Lexical Verb
1
takes
2
is
taken
3
is
taking
4
is
being
taken
5
has
taken
6
has
been
taken
7
has
been
taking
8
has
been
being
taken
9
will
take
10
will
be
taken
11
will
be
taking
12
will
be
being
taken
13
will
have
taken
14
will
have
been
taken
15
will
have
been
taking
16
will
have
been
being
taken

In the column labelled "Modal", you can replace will with can, may, might, must, should, would, etc., and get good standard-English auxiliary+verb forms.  But that's the only place in the paradigm where will — or the rest of these words — can fit.

Will shares a number of other properties with its fellow modal auxiliaries. Here are three of the five shared properties, in my paraphrase of the explanation given in CGEL on pp. 106-107.   (Explaining the other two would be a distraction at this stage.)

(a) Modal auxiliaries take only primary forms. For example, they have no -ing form, and you can't precede them with the infinitive marker to.  To see this, let's contrast the modal auxiliary can with the phrase of similar meaning "be able to"; and the modal auxiliary will with "be about to". Thus you can say "I regret not being able to leave" but not "I regret not canning leave"; and similarly "I regret not being about to leave", but not "I regret not willing leave". Likewise "I want to be about to leave" works, but "I want to will leave" doesn't.

(b) Modal auxiliaries don't show person-number agreement: "I am about to do it" vs. "We are about to do it"; but "I will do it" vs. "We will do it".

(c) Modal auxiliaries take bare infinitival complements (i.e. without "to"): "We can leave; we will leave", not "we can to leave; we will to leave", compared to "We want to leave; we ought to leave; we are about to leave".

Why are these words called "modals"? In a tradition going back to Aristotle, modal logic deals with ways of qualifying the truth of a judgment. In its modern form, modal logic might deal with the logic of necessity and possibility, or the logic of obligation and permission, or the logic of belief, or the logic of time. And since the words like can, may, might, must, should, will, and would are verbal auxiliaries that mostly express modal concepts, it makes sense to call them "modal auxiliaries".

What about the argument that the core meaning of will is not really "future"? As CGEL explains (pp. 209-210):

The difference in interpretation between a simple present tense and its counterpart with will is to a very large extent a matter of modality. Compare, for example:

Present Time
Future Time
Simple Present That is the doctor. They meet in the final in May.
will + plain form That will be the doctor. They will meet in the final in May.

In each pair the time is the same, but the version with will is epistemically weaker [i.e. less certain] than the simple present. Note also that all of the auxiliaries in question can be used with situation that are in part, present, or future time. Compare will and may in:

Past Time
Present Time
Future Time
He will have left already. He will be in Paris now. He will see her tomorrow.
He may have left already. He may be in Paris now. He may see her tomorrow.

For a more reflective and extensive discussion, I recommend an earlier Language Log post ("The Lord which was and is", 3/18/2008) by Geoff Pullum, co-author of CGEL. For a fanciful speculation about why all the modern Germanic languages have lost the future tense category that Spanish, French and other Indo-European languages have retained, see David Beaver's "There's no future in canoeing", 3/2/2004.

And if you want to follow an experienced guide deep into the grammatical woods, take a look at Anoop Sarkar, "The conflict between future tense and modality: The case of will in English", Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 5(2): 91-117, 1998.

Anoop's conclusion? English will is a present-tense modal.

Getting back to the original question, let me add that it's easy to see why the quoted passage would puzzle an intelligent, informed and curious teacher. (And why it would positively baffle a class full of intellectually engaged seventh graders.)

In the first place, "modern grammarians" haven't "reduced the number of tenses in English to just two" — rather, they've argued that English has had only two tenses all along, going back to the time before it was even called "English".

In the second place, the change has nothing to do with the fact that modern grammarians are nice (though they are) — rather, it's motivated by a logical argument based on the facts of the case.

In the third place, it seems wrong to claim that the present-day meaning of will is "present-time intent". Originally, it mean "to want" or "to wish" or "to choose", and one of its uses in English historically was to express "present-time intent". But this sense is largely obsolete today, except in a few constructions and expressions.  CGEL suggests that the kind of modality involved is "epistemic", i.e. having to do with knowledge or degree of acceptance; and in the cited LL post, Geoff Pullum attributes to will (with examples) "a wide range of meanings, ranging over volition, inclination, habituation, tendency, inference, and prediction".

And finally, a text for middle-schoolers shouldn't just appeal to the authority of "modern grammarians", whatever their motivation, especially when it suggests that they've changed their minds about something. It's not hard to give some arguments for the view that English has no future tense, as I've done above. The arguments might be right or wrong, and students should be free to engage them seriously and come to a conclusion. This is not because they're better qualified than the experts, but because it's the only way for them to understand the claims.

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67 Comments »

  1. outeast said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    Wow! One of the best and most eye-opening LL posts in a while (which is praise of this post, not an indictment of other posts…). Thanks Mark!

    From a practical, classroom-application perspective:

    The established [? certainly in EFL textbooks] breakdown into past, present, and future tenses is a mess to teach to FL speakers beyond around intermediate level, largely because of the 'exceptions' to the rules (like the present time uses of 'will', as in the 'doctor' example above).

    The breakdown/analysis given here looks as though it could really facilitate EFL teaching*. Does anyone know of any TEFL books that leverage this analysis?

  2. Nick Z said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:01 am

    Mildly off-topic, but Proto-Indo-European probably never had a future tense. The futures of the IE languages are mostly cobbled together from various desiderative (present) and subjunctive formations. So the lack of future in the Germanic languages is really a throwback to hallowed tradition rather than a weird innovation…

  3. kip said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    In the table, the rows with both progressive and passive (rows 8, 12, 16) sound incorrect to my ears. For example: "Calculus II will have been being taken by the students". Are there any other LL posts on this topic? I wonder how widespread these use of both progressive and passive modifiers is.

  4. Michael said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:25 am

    English has no future, Hebrew has no present. Am I right in assuming that every language has a past?

  5. Joe said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    "it's true that the commonest way to express a future-time meaning is indeed to use the auxiliary verb will"

    Is that true? "Going to/gonna" seems fairly common as well. When I was an EFL teacher I paid a lot of attention to the use of "will" and "going to" in conversations with other teachers, and based on my observations I feel like "going to" is actually more common. Is there a way to find out the statistics on these things?

    [(myl) Your guess might well be right, so I've changed the body of the post to read "... a common way to express ...". I suspect that the statistics will depend very much on the genre and register of the text or speech; with that proviso, it wouldn't be terribly hard to get some sample statistics, and I'll devote a Breakfast Experiment™ to that end sometime soon.]

    A great book exploring the verb system in English is "The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning" by Michael Lewis. It is written primarily for use by EFL teachers (with ideas for classroom activities), but I found it to be one of the most enlightening books on the subject.

  6. Alif Baa said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    Perhaps I'm misunderstanding, but how is this Past Time?
    "He will have left already."
    Isn't this future perfect? Which expresses that he will have done the action in the past, yes, but at some point in the future.
    The rest is very interesting. Having read the previous post on this subject, I always run into trouble trying to explain this to people, who assume that being able to express it necessitates the existence of the grammatical tense.

    [No, it's not future perfect. Think of someone who's flying in from New York, two hours flying time away, and due to arrive at 6pm. You realize you're going to be late making it to the airport to meet her, and you say to your partner, "I should call her to let her know she should wait in the baggage claim area." And your partner looks at the time and says, "You can't. It's after 4. She will have taken off already." That doesn't mean that at some future time the takeoff will be in the past. It means right now the plane is, or should be, or is very likely to be, in the air, having taken off at a time that from the present standpoint is in the past. Will does not always refer to future time. And that entails that will have does not always refer to a perspective on an event that from a future reference point places it in the past. (Though it can. If I say "I will have already gone home by this time tomorrow", I mean that if you fast-forward 24 hours, from that reference point in time you'll be able to say "Geoff has gone home.") Mark has got it all right in the post above (and Philip Newton has also got it right, two comments below): will not only isn't a future tense marker syntactically (his first point), it isn't even guaranteed to make a reference to future time semantically. —Geoff Pullum]

  7. Philip Newton said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    @kip: I thought exactly the same about rows 8, 12, and 16.

    Row 4 was fine ("He is being taken to the hospital", for example), but 8 12 16 all sounded incorrect.

  8. Philip Newton said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    @Alif Baa: That's one interpretation, but a present-tense interpretation is also possible — meaning, roughly, "I suspect (or assume) that he has left already".

    For example, "Where's Paul?" "Oh, no use looking for him; he will have left already. He always leaves early on Tuesdays."

  9. mollymooly said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    @Alif Baa: the sentence could be spoken with reference to a past or future time of leaving, depending on the context. Here is an example with past time:

    "I don't know how to contact him. There's no point in phoning his hotel room now: he will have left already."

  10. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    kip: "In the table, the rows with both progressive and passive (rows 8, 12, 16) sound incorrect to my ears. For example: "Calculus II will have been being taken by the students"."

    This example has *four* things in combination: the modal will, the perfect, the progressive, and the passive. The semantics of the combination is monstrously complicated. If the combination is going to sound acceptable, an awful lot of contextualization is going to have to be supplied.

    The combination of progressive and passive, without all this other stuff, is unproblematic: "Your order is being prepared right now." (Though there were 19th-century critics of the progressive passive, by the 20th century the fuss had died down. MWDEU says: "Since [J. Lesslie] Hall 1917 [who defended the progressive passive], no one has had much to say about it. It is good to know that some old usage issues do fade away at last.")

  11. language hat said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:16 am

    I think it's important to emphasize that "will" is not even the most common way to express a future meaning; the simple "present" is, I believe, more common in contemporary colloquial English. "We're going tomorrow" seems to me much more natural than "We will go tomorrow."

  12. John said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    Interesting post; the chart with the 16 forms was neat.

    But (as other commenters pointed out) forms 8, 12, and 16 sound off to me (as a native West-coast American). In fact I'm having trouble working out what something like "Calculus II will have been being taken by the students" is even supposed to mean — is it something like, "Calculus II was being taken by the students," but with overtones of uncertainty?

    Also, I think that the use of "will" verb phrases with non-future-tense meaning may be much less common in the US than elsewhere. Although I would understand "That will have been Peter" in the right context, it sounds striking and even a little stilted to my ears. Are there really any Yanks who would say such a thing anymore?

  13. Östen Dahl said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:27 am

    Perhaps things are not quite as black and white — what is a "tense" depends to a large extent on your point of view:
    1) Calling "will" a "present tense modal expressing present time intent or will" is not an adequate description. In "It will rain tomorrow" or "He will be fifty next year" there is no intent or will implied. Among the Germanic languages, English is special in that future time reference has often to be marked grammatically; in German you can say both "Morgen regnet es" or "Morgen wird es regnen" but "Tomorrow it rains" is not an idiomatic way of expressing a prediction about the weather in English.
    2) Notice that the past tense can also have modal meanings in English: in "if I had money now" the past tense marks counterfactuality, not past time reference. So the presence of modal interpretations does not necessarily disqualify something as a tense.
    3) In modern linguistics, it is commonly presupposed that grammatical categories such as tense should be defined in terms of their meaning. Another possible view, however, which comes closer to traditional practice, is that grammatical categories should be defined in terms of their grammatical properties. Thus, the traditional category of tense includes also inflectional forms that modern grammar tends to treat as aspectual. From this point of view, English "will" does indeed go together with modal verbs rather than with inflectional forms such as present and past.
    4) A further possible point of view is the historical one, and from that perspective, we can see that "will" has changed its character over time — it has acquired temporal components which have grown in strength at the same time as the original meaning 'want, desire' has been pushed into the background. Furthermore, it has been reduced phonetically more than the other modals. Maybe the best description of Modern English "will" is to say that it is a "wannabe tense".
    Finally, "He will have left already" indicates an event which is prior to a future or present reference point. The event itself maybe either in the future or in the past, its location relative to the speech act is not part of the meaning of "will have".

  14. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    Just a note about "I want to will leave": you can't say "I want to left", either, so I'm unsure of how this distinguishes modal "will" from tensed verb forms. My colleague Bodhi Murphy just wrote a paper arguing that in fact "will" has two separate uses (contra Enc, etc.): a present tense modal and a future reading. I'm going to see if I can get a copy from him and possibly post some of his arguments here.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    @language hat: Not to mention "We're going to go tomorrow". (Although I'd find it a less awkward example with a different main verb.)

  16. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    Ryan Denzer-King: "Just a note about "I want to will leave": you can't say "I want to left", either, so I'm unsure of how this distinguishes modal "will" from tensed verb forms."

    Mark didn't say that modal "will" wasn't a tensed verb form (nor does CGEL say this). The fact is that the modal auxiliaries are verbs that occur only in contexts where non-modals have tensed forms. The usual way to say this is that the modals *are* tensed verb forms, with the oddity that they don't show the inflectional morphology of tense (or person-number agreement)

  17. Alex B said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    While I agree that there is no future conjugation per se of English verbs, I can't agree with the assertion that will, in its auxiliary role, does not imply the future. All of the past and present constructions cited using auxiliary will are of lesser certainty because at root they imply future discovery. "That will be the doctor" does not mean "I think that is the doctor", as much as "When the identity of that person is discovered, it will be the doctor". The construction feels peculiar to us because it's expressing that, in the future, the present or past will be a certain thing.

  18. Hans Nilsson said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

    Thanks for an excellent post. Let me add to the complexity by citing the difference of SHALL and WILL, from my Concise OED:

    "USAGE: There are traditional rules as to when to use SHALL and WILL. These state that when forming the future tense, SHALL should be used with I and WE, while WILL should be used with YOU, HE, SHE, IT and THEY. However, when expressing determination or a command this rule is reversed: WILL is used in first persons and SHALL is used in second and third persons. In practice, however, these rules are not followed so strictly and the contracted forms (I'll, she'll) are frequently used instead, especially in spoken and informal contexts."

    Is this more of a British English usage, or is it appropriate also in American English?

    (My wife always tries to correct me when I say "I will have a beer", trying to convey a polite wish. She says I should use the ordinary modal "I SHALL have a beer. Who is right? Reading the above USAGE, I tend to think she is right…)

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

    I'm not sure it's correct to say that French, Spanish etc. have "retained" the future tense, at least not the analytic future of Latin. Instead, Proto-Romance constructed a new future on the basis of infinitive + "have", and while in most Romance languages these have fused into an indivisible whole that may be construed as a tense, it isn't so in Portuguese.

    Slavic languages, likewise, have no analytic future tense. Imperfective future is expressed by "be" + infinitive, and perfective future by means of prepositional prefixes attached to present forms.
    And in Modern Greek, the future is formed by θα (a contraction of a phrase meaning "I want that") + present.

  20. majolo said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    Is there any evidence or argument to convince a skeptic of the claim that "they will meet in the final in May" is epistemically weaker than "they meet in the final in May"? It doesn't feel that way to me (although there may be instance of will that have that effect).

  21. mollymooly said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

    It's certainly true that there is rarely any call to use forms 8, 12, and 16. Most google matches are either from grammar discussions like this one, or else mistakes where "be being / (will) have been being" should read "be / (will) have been". But I think it's easy to construct an example sentence + context to show that the forms are implausible but by no means impossible or illegal ("this building has been under construction for 9 years; if it's not finished next year, it will have been being built for 10 years").

    I did find this "in the wild" in a blogpost comment about a band whose guitarist was hit by a bottle thrown from the audience [Brendon Urie Pwned At Reading]:
    "He chose to play on which is brave. However, they will have been being paid a lot of money to perform there"
    Here I think "will have been paid" would not work, in that the band would not have been paid till after the gig, and might have forfeited their fee by leaving the stage early. (at least, that's what I think the poster is saying: their opinion may not be accurate.)

  22. Ellen K. said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    @Östen Dahl: While one wouldn't say in English "Tomorrow it rains", it's fine to say "Tomorrow she sings".

  23. Sili said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    Off topic, but how does a Dane end up being what appears to have been the foremost grammarian of English of his time?

    "I regret not canning leave"
    "I regret not willing leave"
    "I want to will leave"

    The first one of these is so close to being transparent that I sorta want it to be(come) proper English. The last two I can't judge because my wee brain gets confused by the fact that Danish "vil" means both "want to" and "will".

  24. Ellen K. said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    @Hans Nilsson: "I shall have a beer" to my midwestern American brain sounds like a prediction about the future, thus incorrect. And as I understand the usage guidelines you quote, they agree… shall is used with I and we to express future tense. "I will have a beer" is fine, but "I'll have a beer" would be the best form, in my view.

  25. Irene said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    Will is still used also as an active verb, as in “I am willing myself thin” or “He willed it to happen.”

    John asked if Yanks would still say something like, “That will have been Peter.” I do and I hear others well as.

    Hat implied the verb in “We’re going tomorrow” is simple present. Isn’t it progressive?

    Nilsson’s reference to the usage of shall and will is what I was taught in grade school back in the 60s in Philadelphia, although I don’t think I ever hear shall used in any context.

  26. Future Tense: Greek and English « ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    [...] today's post from the Language Log, "What's Will?" written by Mark Libermann a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania. In his post his argues and [...]

  27. Ian Preston said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    @Östen Dahl, Ellen K: Is not the reason it is unusual to say "Tomorrow it rains" because the weather is not usually that certain? I can imagine a forecaster receiving conclusive evidence that a drought was about to come to an end and expressing confidence in what was implied by saying "That decides it then. Tomorrow it rains." Actually, googling the phrase turns up a few straightforwardly declarative examples of it which sound acceptable to me.

  28. marie-lucie said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    It seems to me that a sentence with will is pragmatically more strongly marked that one with the present tense. "We're going tomorrow" is an announcement which implies that the decision has been made and there is no problem about it. "We will go tomorrow" seems to be the endpoint of a discussion about whether to go tomorrow or some other time: it states a decision which is being made right then (perhaps one could say here that it has a performative role).

    Similarly "I'll have a beer" is a normal response to being offered a choice of drinks, while "I will have a beer" is more emphatic. It could be a response to a challenge, as in: "But you are the designated driver!" – "Only in four or five hours' time, and we haven't had dinner yet, so I will have a beer now."

  29. Adrian said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

    I describe "will" as the "strongest" modal; even stronger than "must" (and "to be to"). Compare: You must be here at 5 p.m. You will be here at 5 p.m. (The "modal of definiteness", if you will.) And this strength is seemingly the reason it was able to become used as an ersatz "future tense".

  30. Joe said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    I have been wondering about this for years. Here are some various ways of expressing future time in English (and what they mean) which I have read about over the years:

    Present Simple for scheduled events: The train leaves at 6 tomorrow.

    Present continuous/progressive for plans that were made prior to the moment of speaking (similar to the other uses of the present progressive in that the speaker is between two moments on time): We're having a party on Friday (i.e. plans were made prior to the moment of speaking, but the event will take place after the moment of speaking).

    "to be going to" + base form of the verb for intentions based on the speaker's present (without emphasizing prior planning): "I'm going to dance with her one more time" (Solomon Burke lyric)
    "to be going to" + base form of the verb for future events with present evidence: It's going to rain (see those dark clouds!).

    "Will" is all over the place. Some examples:
    The car won't start. (Refusal. Question:Is this really future? In certain contexts it seems to be past somehow.)
    (Phone is ringing) I'll get it. (Decision made right now with no prior planning.)
    I'll get you. (Threat.)
    I'll do better next time. (Promise.)
    I'll give you a hand later tonight. (Offer.)
    The president will give a speech on Friday. (Fact.)
    Boys will be boys. (General truth.)
    You'll love this book! (Prediction.)
    Will you knock it off. (Impatient commands.)

    As an EFL teacher, these divisions often helped understand the mistakes students would make (e.g. student says "I get it" when the phone rings).

    I would love to read more about expressing the future from an expert.

    By the way, long live language log.

  31. Alif Baa said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    I think my confusion regarding my earlier comment stems from the fact that I'd probably never say "he will have left" or anything of the sort to refer to anything but the future. It sounds vaguely familiar, a sort of grammatical grey zone, but definitely not anything I'd say or write, and which would certainly confuse me, if just momentarily, as to its meaning.

    Though I understand that grammatically, will + plain form does not constitute a tense, the examples given to support both the present and past use of will don't ring very well in my ear. Saying this from Florida, by the way.

  32. Irene said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    I think Joe's example, "The car won't start," includes both information about the past and a prediction about the future. It says that the car did not start after past attempts were made. Therefore, I predict that the car also will not start after future attempts are made.

    What is the origin of won't? Why is there no willn't?

  33. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

    @ Coby Lubliner: And in Modern Greek, the future is formed by θα (a contraction of a phrase meaning "I want that") + present.

    It would be more strictly correct to say that the normal future is formed with θα + subjunctive. Eg θα σε δω "I'll see you". It's certainly possible to use the present ("θα σε βλέπω"), but then it implies repeated seeing ("I'll always [be] see[ing] you / I'll see you [every day]"). Rather like the imperfective Russian future, in fact, which Coby also mentioned.

  34. Östen Dahl said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

    @Ellen K., Ian Preston: Examples like "Tomorrow she sings" have been discussed in the literature under the label of "scheduling". Indeed, "The train leaves at 12" is most naturally interpreted as being about the train schedule, "The train will leave at twelve" is rather a claim about what will really happen. It's not so much about certainty. A statement could not get much more certain than "Next year it will be 70 years since World War II started", but "will" is still OK there. "Is" is possibly also ok, but that is again not due to the certainty of the claim but rather of its nature of being something "scheduled".
    No doubt there are situations when you could say "It rains tomorrow". That's the reason I hedged my claim by saying that it was not the natural way to express oneself in a weather forecast. It is in fact instructive to compare weather forecasts in different languages. German and Finnish weather forecasts are often written in the present throughout, whereas weather forecasts in English tend to use "will" or some other indicator of futurity most of the time. For an example, see here: http://www.weather.com/newscenter/nationalforecast/index.html?from=hp_news

  35. TB said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

    Roger Coren, do you think it's unnatural to say "We're gonna go tomorrow?" I say that all the time. "We're gonna go to the movies tomorrow." "Did you go to the DMV yet?" "No, we're gonna go tomorrow."

    In both the case of "I will go tomorrow" and of "I am going to go tomorrow", I think the unnaturalness comes from the lack of contractions. "I'll go tomorrow" and "I'm gonna go tomorrow" both sound fine to me.

  36. Nathan Myers said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    Let's not neglect to mention Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Travellers' Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations, cited in Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

    "It will tell you for instance how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations whilst you are actually travelling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own father or mother. … Most readers get as far as the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up: and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs. "

  37. Nathan Myers said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

    In Indonesian we have time indicators sudah, "already" belum "not yet", pernah "ever", and bersih "still". I find them more reality-oriented than the common English time indicators.

  38. Jack said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

    I had intended to state that Spanish does not retain the Latin future, but created a compound future in the early middle ages; I had intended to point out that 'will' is not the most common way to talk about the future- it is either 'going to' or the present continuous, and I would say the latter; I was going to explain the different future forms that exist in English, why they exist and how they relate to language in general.

    But I have beaten to all of these comments by the erudit ereaders of this blog, and all that remains is to observe that Östen Dahl has never played cricket.

  39. Sarang said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

    I don't know how far this is a difference between English and e.g. Latin. Seems like one could argue that a Latin verb "really" has only three forms — habeo habui habitus — and that what is called the "future tense" really ought to be filed under the present tense. Once you lose your inflections, your conjugation systems collapse to their roots, and you're left with the three different root forms for each verb: present, past, and past pple. Which is the situation in English.

    [(myl) I'm not sure what your point is. The traditional presentation of Latin verbs in dictionaries and vocabulary lists gives four "principal parts" -- the present indicative active first person singular, the infinitive, the perfect indicative active first person singular, and the past participle. But this is just because (except for highly irregular cases) these four are enough to predict the other inflected forms, not because no other inflected forms exist. This doesn't bear in any way on the question of whether or not Latin has future-tense verb forms.]

  40. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

    @ Östen Dahl: German and Finnish weather forecasts are often written in the present throughout …

    In the case of Finnish this is scarcely surprising, since there is no morphologically marked future tense in that language. The whole subject of aspect, futurity, etc in Finnish is rather complex, & involves such weighty concepts as telicity — a term I confess I've only just learned. One way of expressing the future is by the use of the accusative case rather than the partitive — but to say that is only to scratch the surface.

  41. Philip Spaelti said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

    @ Irene: What is the origin of won't? Why is there no willn't?

    When the sound [l] follows a vowel it is typically pronounced with a vowel like quality (often referred to as 'dark l') in English. Dark-'l' is very similar to a vowel/'w'. Some forms of English vocalize 'l' in all such contexts, but in standard English this is limited to one syllable contexts, e.g. "walk", "calm", etc. (compare also "shan't" for "shalln't").

    In the case of "willn't" > "wiwn't", the 'i' sandwiched between the two 'w's was rounded to produce a more 'o' like sound. This rounding effect of 'l' on a preceding vowel is seen also in all the words with '~al' like 'ball', 'tall', 'walk' etc. which now all have a more 'o'-like vowel instead of an 'æ' (as in 'hat' etc.)

  42. Jonathon said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

    Actually, the OED says that won't comes from a contraction of woll not, woll being a variant form of will (along with wull and well). But the only place that form survived in standard modern English is in the negative contraction. The other contenders for the negative contraction, including wynnot, wonnot, we'n't, and willot, didn't survive either.

  43. Jason said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

    I'm surprised to see a discussion of "will" that doesn't also touch on "shall."

    [(myl) Some of the commenters have mentioned it. I explained my own opinion in an earlier post: "My take ... is the same as that of most Americans: I never use shall, except in a few fixed phrases; and I generally perceive other Americans who use it as pretentious, affected or precious." ]

  44. HP said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

    I don't think you've blogged this before, and I've just found this Onion News Network piece on the modal future: Preeemptive Monument Honors Future Victims of Imminent Dam Disaster

    "What will I have done?," indeed.

  45. HP said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    Of course I meant to type "preemptive," and I hope my unfortunate typo will not dissuade you from clicking the fucking hilarious link above, over which I am still giggling.

    "This tragedy will have been entirely preventable," says the mayor, in a prepared statement.

    I just got a new keyboard. That's my stroy, and I will have been stickcing to ti.

  46. Simon said,

    December 10, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    Seems to me that a very straightforward way to explain the issue to middle schoolers is to draw a distinction between "morphological tense" (English has only two) and "semantic tense" (English has at least three).

    [(myl) Apologies for being unclear -- I thought that was what I did, without presupposing that the reader knows what "morphological" and "semantic" mean, and with the provision of some concrete examples to bring the discussion down to earth.]

    Another straightforward way to draw the distinction would be to discuss morphologically synthetic tenses (English verbs have only two of those, present and past) versus morphologically analytical tenses (English verbs have several traditional ones, present, future, past, perfect, pluperfect, future perfect + progressive forms + "do" forms).

    [(myl) I look forward to linking to your alternative explanations. ]

    A brilliant post otherwise, but one that overlooked a couple of good ways of didacticizing this issue for (sophisticated, engaged) middle schoolers. (I'm impressed with that class!)

  47. Ivan said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 12:41 am

    Coby Lubliner:

    Slavic languages, likewise, have no analytic future tense. Imperfective future is expressed by "be" + infinitive, and perfective future by means of prepositional prefixes attached to present forms.

    With all due respect, what you write doesn't make any sense. Different Slavic languages have very different ways of expressing future for both imperfective and perfective verbs, especially the latter. There are often variations even between local dialects officially covered by the same standard language.

    Your reference to "prepositional prefixes attached to present forms" is meaningless in this context. It's true that in any Slavic language, you can create perfective verbs out of most imperfective ones by adding various prepositional prefixes, but this has nothing to do with expressing future, and it's far from being the only way for perfectivizing imperfective verbs and vice versa.

    Also, your first sentence is probably a typo — I assume you wanted to say that Slavic languages have no synthetic future tenses. However, not even this is strictly true, since in the standard Croatian/Serbian, the auxiliary verb htjeti has a short enclitic form that gets attached directly to the verb stem, so that the result looks pretty much like a synthetic future tense.

    In any case, I don't think it's possible to give any accurate blanket statements about expressing future in Slavic languages.

  48. dr pepper said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 12:45 am

    @Ryan Denzer-King:

    > Just a note about "I want to will leave": you can't say
    > "I want to left", either,

    "I want to (be leaving/have left) (then/by then/at that time/)"

    "I want to (be/have/have been) gone"

  49. Östen Dahl said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 4:57 am

    @Nigel Greenwood: "In the case of Finnish this is scarcely surprising, since there is no morphologically marked future tense in that language."

    Yes, but with respect to morphologically marked future tenses there is no difference between Finnish and English, so my point is that in spite of this, English speakers flag futurity much more systematically by "will" or "be going to" or some other similar means, even in contexts such as weather forecasts, where it should be clear already from the genre (forecasting) and the frequent temporal adverbs that the whole discourse is about the future. If you say that there is no future in English and that "will" is a present tense modal you miss this fact, which is quite important for those of us whose native languages are more future-challenged, as is the case for many other North European languages, when we try to learn English. This discussion could be extended indefinitely, but I think I stop here.

  50. Nigel Greenwood said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 5:49 am

    @ Östen Dahl: Yes, but with respect to morphologically marked future tenses there is no difference between Finnish and English

    Sorry, I misspoke (& realized the fact just after I submitted the post!). What I meant is that Finnish hasn't even got a synthetic future equivalent to the English "will go". There are, of course, ways of conveying futurity when necessary.

    I've just had a quick look at the current Finnish forecast: it looks a bit grim (temperatures in Lapland of -29 C; 2 h 41 min of daylight …). Yes, it does all seem to be in the present tense.

  51. Stephen Jones said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 6:41 am

    I was under the impression that the CGEL considered the perfect to be a tense and not an aspect, and thus gave a total of four tenses for English, instead of the generally agreed two. I don't have a copy to hand so perhaps someone could check it out for me.

    [(myl) This is true; I left it out in order not to introduce an unnecessary complexity; in my defense, CGEL does call the perfect/non-perfect distinction a "secondary tense system".]

    The future tense in romance languages was originally a compound tense. Interestingly the Spanish future tense can be used in nearly every case we use 'will'.

    the simple "present" is, I believe, more common in contemporary colloquial English. "We're going tomorrow" seems to me much more natural than "We will go tomorrow."

    I presume you mean the "Present Continuous". In fact describing future actions is probably the most common use of the Present Continuous. One of the delights of being an EFL teacher is you get to teach the fine distinctions between 'will', 'going to', and the continuous (the differences are often so fine as to be non-existent).

    A great book exploring the verb system in English is "The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning" by Michael Lewis.

    Lewis's book is bizarre. Most of it is brilliant, but then he goes off on a wild goose chase after 'core meaning' for each modal. He also refuses to accept that you often do have random variation in language, and indulges in some byzantine analysis as a result.

  52. Stephen Jones said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 9:51 am

    I left it out in order not to introduce an unnecessary complexity;

    If only Huddleston had done the same!

  53. Suzette Haden Elgin said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 10:45 am

    I don't believe in the alleged English "present" tense, myself. Not when we're perfectly happy with sentences like "The test on English tenses starts at noon tomorrow."

  54. John said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 11:35 am

    @Ms. Elgin: I agree, and maybe we should call the two synthetic tenses in English "non-past" and "past." After all, it's o.k. to say, "The test starts right now" or "The test starts tomorrow," but not #"The test starts yesterday," and the form "started" seems to have a complementary distribution.

    Plain modal auxiliaries (which aren't perfectivized by "have") also seem to be non-past: "It may rain tomorrow/right now/*yesterday."

  55. Stephen Jones said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

    'Past' and 'non-past' is widely accepted, as well as 'Distant' and 'Proximal'. The point is that the 'present' tense is the unmarked of the two. It can be used for future events because there is no distinction between Present and Future. There is a tense for events considered to belong to a distant time scheme, but the unmarked tense will apply to all others.

  56. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

    @Arnold Zwicky: The combination of progressive and passive, without all this other stuff, is unproblematic: "Your order is being prepared right now." (Though there were 19th-century critics of the progressive passive, by the 20th century the fuss had died down. MWDEU says: "Since [J. Lesslie] Hall 1917 [who defended the progressive passive], no one has had much to say about it. It is good to know that some old usage issues do fade away at last.")

    Not too fast. There are some of us who still regret the loss of (e.g.) "the house is a-building", which I suppose might be called implicitly passive, and its replacement with the explicitly passive "the house is being built". And I'm delighted to learn from MWDEU that Jane Austen once wrote: "Our Dressing-Table is constructing on the spot".

  57. Matt B in LA said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

    @ majolo:
    "Is there any evidence or argument to convince a skeptic of the claim that "they will meet in the final in May" is epistemically weaker than "they meet in the final in May"? It doesn't feel that way to me (although there may be instance of will that have that effect)."

    Best argument I can think of: Think of the first as predictive and the second as a statement of fact. A prediction, of course, is uncertain.

    @ Simon:
    "A brilliant post otherwise, but one that overlooked a couple of good ways of didacticizing this issue for (sophisticated, engaged) middle schoolers. (I'm impressed with that class!)"

    I'd also like to say that I'm impressed with the teacher for engaging the class and seeking answers when he/she needs to. I can (from experience) conjure "grammar" teachers who would have said, simply, "That's the way it is."

  58. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

    Simon Cauchi: "Not too fast. There are some of us who still regret the loss of (e.g.) "the house is a-building", which I suppose might be called implicitly passive, and its replacement with the explicitly passive "the house is being built". And I'm delighted to learn from MWDEU that Jane Austen once wrote: "Our Dressing-Table is constructing on the spot"."

    It's always charming to hear that there are people willing to espouse 18th-century variants when the rest of the world has passed them by. Some 18th- and 19th-century variants continue in general use, but others are no longer standard.

  59. John Rostron said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 5:08 am

    Hans Nilsson asked about SHALL and WILL. The strictures defined in the OED seemed designed to confuse. I agree with your take on the matter. This stricture is best ignored. English usage is English as it is used. People ignore this structure, therefore this is the usage.

  60. Aaron Davies said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 6:05 am

    This reminds me of a time when I had occasion to tell someone my father's age: I said "He'd be…57", meaning by the "would", "I'm doing the math in my head right now"; it occurred to me about a second later that I might have implied he was dead, an impression I immediately corrected.

  61. Aaron Davies said,

    December 14, 2008 @ 6:07 am

    It seems like "past/non-past" (or possibly sometimes "complete/incomplete") may be the only tense distinctions with universal applicability. Does it perhaps say interesting (Whorfian?) things about common approaches to epistemology that so many languages refuse to speak about the future in the same grammatical terms as the past and the present?

  62. Andrew McKenzie said,

    December 15, 2008 @ 2:23 am

    Isn't one of the arguments against "will" being a tense based on the fact that "would" is morphologically, syntactically, and semantically (will + past)?

    Also, in reply to some other comments: Hundreds of languages not only do not have a future tense, but mark no tense whatsoever… these languages rely on aspect, adverbials, and context to indicate time reference. Many of these languages are still spoken in the United States, and are mostly endangered. Other languages still only distinguish between future and non-future.

    When you consider how rarely we talk about things without already knowing when they happened, and how many languages get by just fine without tense marking, and how often tenses are used "outside their purpose" in languages with them (e.g. English past tense), it's somewhat amazing to me that tenses even exist at all.

  63. Mark Liberman said,

    December 15, 2008 @ 4:54 am

    Andrew McKenzie: Isn't one of the arguments against "will" being a tense based on the fact that "would" is morphologically, syntactically, and semantically (will + past)?

    Yes, that argument is part of the package in CGEL and elsewhere, and seems pretty cogent to me. I left it out of this explanation since the post was already too long and complex.

  64. Merri said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 7:50 am

    Sorry I can't answer every post.

    Here are some indications :

    'will' and 'shall' have been taken as auxiliary verbs for the future, because there wasn't any future form before. Their choice is inspired by politeness :
    'I know my duty is to do it', I shall do it ;
    'Your choice is that it has to be done', you will it to be done

    This is indeed a very common way to proceed. And not having any future tense is less uncommon as one might thnk.

    Not every language has a past tense, because some languages don't have any tenses. Akkadian and classical Arab are examples : they only have aspectual values ; this was also more or less the case with pre-classic Greek.

    The form 'he will have gone home early' should be interpreted as 'when we'll be able to check, we'll see he [go home, future perfect]' : the event comes before a reference point in the future, as present perfect comes before a reference point which happens to be the present..
    Such a form exists in French too.

  65. Merri said,

    December 19, 2008 @ 7:56 am

    Ah, yes, I forgot : the only more or less universal distinction is between closed and non-closed actions, i.e.
    1) those whose end moment we know and
    2) those we don't, or haven't yet ended, or aren't going to end, or we don't care.

    Speakers of Slavic languages will be ;-) familiar with this distinction ; those who studied Latin will know perfectum vs infectum.

    I can send a study (in French) of the most common distinctions, with frequency issues, on mere request.

  66. AntonGarou said,

    December 22, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    Michael, could you point me at some evidence Hebrew has no present?I'm a native speaker and it seems evident to me- although it is primitivised, at least in relation to person agreement which is much less prominent then in other tenses.I may very well be mistaken as the semitic stem based morphology can easily make things more opaque, especially to a native speaker.

  67. William said,

    January 20, 2014 @ 12:14 am

    "If we were to travel forward to 2199 we would find that calculus II will have been being taken by students up until a few years prior to then."

    Does that make sense?

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