Irn-Bru and determinism about the future

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Scotland's most popular soft drink is a local one, called Irn-Bru (pronounced "iron brew"). It rivals or outstrips even Coca Cola in sales. Many much-loved humorous TV commercials for Irn Bru have run over the years, some of them offering wonderful parodic introductions to Scottish life and culture (watch this one, for example). Print ads echoing them were also published. Some of the ideas the ad agency came up with were judged funny but a bit too raunchy, tasteless, or controversial for public release. Recently, though, the company (A. G. Barr) released on its website a gallery of suppressed ads. Several involve silly-naughty double entendres of a typically British sort (a crustacean saying "I'm into Irn-Bru and hard-core prawn sites"; a gorilla saying, "Gimme Irn-Bru or I'll shuffle my nuts in front of your mother"; an old man pointing to his guffawing donkey and saying "If it ain't Irn-Bru you can kiss my ass"). Some seem a bit bleak (a ragged and unshaven man with a desperate down-and-out look saying: "Irn-Bru's never let me down. Not like mum, dad, Terry, and the wife"). And at least one of them provides (for yes, this is Language Log, not Scottish Soft-drink Industry Advertising Log) a lovely illustration of an important and linguistically interesting syntactico-semantic point:

The point is not about bugger: to you that may be a coarse verb meaning "engage in active anal intercourse with", but in British and Australian English it's a commonplace interjection of annoyance. No, the linguistic issue is what makes Someone nicks my Irn-Bru next Tuesday hover on the edge of being a bizarre thing to say. Here's the linguistic backstory.

There is a construction called the futurate in which the present tense is used to make reference to a future time: you can say The Red Sox play the Cardinals a week from this Friday. Yet there is something bizarre about saying ??The Red Sox defeat the Cardinals a week from this Friday. What is wrong?

The answer is that the futurate is used only for events the future occurrence of which is guaranteed by some pre-set schedule. The fact that the Boston Red Sox are set to play the St Louis Cardinals on Friday, June 20, is advertised at the websites of both the Red Sox and the Cardinals.

Of course, the fact that the game is on the schedule doesn't mean it couldn't be cancelled if there were a major problem; but that would be a serious upset. The result, however, is supposed to be entirely up for grabs. If it were not, it is doubtful that either team would be able to sell many tickets. The game is scheduled to occur; the defeat, should there be one, is not scheduled. In fact the Cardinals will (we assume, in the absence of criminal collusion) do everything they can to make sure it does not happen.

In the same way, My sister gets married next month is a sensible statement if the wedding day has been fixed, while ??My sister gets divorced within three years is so bizarre that it would cause people to ask "What do you mean?".

To be more specific about the constraint on the futurate construction, it is used for scheduled events like games and weddings, and for cyclic events in nature (There's a solar eclipse today, but not ??It rains today because rain isn't cyclic). (In addition, the present tense is used for future time reference inside the clause in a conditional adjunct: If it rains, the event will be held in the church hall. For full discussion see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, section 4.2.4, pages 131-134.)

So back to Irn-Bru and the fortune teller. What makes the futurate grammatically and semantically possible (though it's still a little bit of a shock, causing a fraction of a second of double-take) is that the fortune teller is looking at the future events he can see in the crystal ball as if they were scheduled like baseball games. He doesn't say "Someone's going to nick my Irn-Bru next Tuesday" or something like that, which would be a normal way of referring to things that are going to happen in the future; he uses the futurate.

And it's almost O.K. in that context, though even so, it underlines the strangeness of the fortune-teller's-eye view, where the future as well as the past is laid out along the time line for inspection. The slight syntactic shock of seeing a sporadic future theft of a soft drink treated as if it were already on some master schedule of future events is a little reminder of the reality of that odd constraint on the futurate construction — and of the nice sense of linguistic humor possessed by the people at the Leith Agency, who devise the Irn-Bru ads.


  1. Jeremy said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 6:16 am

    Adding something to make the statement less certain seems to work for me. "My sister gets divorced within three years" alone sounds odd, but "I bet you, my sister gets divorced within three years" sounds fine. I guess that is pretty much the same as adding an "If" though!

  2. David said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 6:53 am

    "The Celtics beat the Lakers in six."

    It's used this way all the time, in a flurry of bravado around your prediction (or wish).

  3. Timothy M said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 8:21 am

    Interesting post! It occurred to me that you should be able to find a lot of instances of the futurate in any fiction story where people travel to the past – so I checked out the quotes for Back to the Future that are listed in IMDB, and found a couple:

    Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, "Future Boy", who's President in the United States in 1985?
    Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
    Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who's VICE-President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!
    Marty McFly: Whoa! Wait! Doc!
    Dr. Emmett Brown: And Jack Benny is Secretary of the Treasury.

    If I understand correctly, all of those "is" statements are futurate constructions?

    Also from Back to the Future:
    Marty McFly: Of course! The Enchantment Under the Sea dance! They're supposed to go to this. That's where they kiss for the first time.

    So it seems like this is a very natural construction to use when one is talking about a future that is known without any doubt, even if the events aren't cyclical.

  4. Mark P said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 8:30 am

    I had to look at the ad for a few seconds before I realized what it meant. I don't think the crystal-ball-gazing swami is as common in popular culture as it once was (mainly in cartoons, I think). But given the situation, the language seems right: he sees an event which will happen, not one that might happen. In a sense, he has seen an event that has already happened.

  5. James said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 9:40 am

    What makes the futurate appropriate in the cartoon is not just the swami's knowledge of the future (nor the fact that it will happen rather than might happen!). Suppose I tell you, "It will rain on Sunday." You might ask, "How do you know?" or "What makes you so sure?" If instead I said, "It rains on Sunday," you would just be puzzled as to what I meant.
    The Back to the Future dialog is great data! Here's what I think is happening: Marty is not *predicting* that Reagan will be president, nor that his parents will kiss for the first time. He is *remembering* the events (and Dr. Brown is asking him to remember). Predictions using futurate are fine, but they have to be embedded in a way that shows they are predictions, like "I predict that ____". So, it's important that the swami knows what the bugger will due next Tuesday in the way that most of us can know what the bugger did yesterday.
    That's my hypothesis, anyway.

  6. Charles Hartman said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    Not long ago I heard one bored hardware-store clerk say to another at the next cash register, "I think I'm sick tomorrow."

  7. Alexis said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    "There's a solar eclipse today" is a bit ?? for me. I'd usually use the standard future for this one, even if it is cyclical. Similarly ?"Tonight there's a full moon" sounds odd. But both are certainly better than *"It rains today."

    Irn Bru is nasty stuff whose popularity mystifies me, but the ad is clever. I'm surprised they rejected it, unless it was because of "bugger" — which surely could be replaced.

  8. Josh Millard said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

    "Yet there is something bizarre about saying ??The Red Sox defeat the Cardinals a week from this Friday."

    This suggests an opportunity for wonderful economy in portraying corruption in, say, short fiction. To have a character says as much and have it not be taken as bizarre would establish the premise of the fixedness of baseball in as little as a sentence.

  9. Sili said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 1:49 pm


    Remember this is a nation that thinks Marmite is the bee's knees. (Never had either, myself.)

    And just to stay off topic, could someone explain what's 'naughty' about the ferret ad? I think it's adorable.

  10. Brett said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

    After checking a weather forecast, I might easily say something like, "It rains today," and nobody has ever looked at me oddly for doing so. I think the issue is again one of certainty. I would only feel right making that statement after I knew that the NOAA had predicted a very high probability of precipitation.

  11. Charles said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 3:25 am

    I was wishing for English subtitles during the If commercial. I got about 50-65% of it.

  12. Claire said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    OOOOOOH that makes me miss Glasgow so much! Paris can never truly rival it…
    Charles: that was a relatively light accent. Think yourself lucky!

  13. E@L said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 1:01 am

    I was recently in a situation that required some (I think) interesting grammatical futuration. I needed to renew my passport in Singapore and the Australian High Commission required three types of ID to start the process to get me a new one. Next month they will introduce a new system requiring only one ID – the old passport.

    So I wrote on my blog (first draft): "If I had lost it next month it would (will? shall have been?) be easier – I'd only need the old passport"

    I realized that I had used a conditional Past Tense to talk about a future event that won't happen, and that threw me into me a mood for a little sarcasm…

    Any comments? (Please don't analyse the rest of the blog, it's terribly ungrammatical – for stylistic [i.e laziness] reasons.)

  14. Linda the Copy Editor said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

    What about this strange future-but-really-past tense that I think I've only heard in baseball play-by-play:

    "If he makes that catch [the opportunity for which has come and gone], the inning is over."

    Or even "If it's last year, he makes that catch."

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    —-"but in British and Australian English it's ('bugger') a commonplace interjection of annoyance"—-

    Depends on where in the UK. It is quite shocking in the South of England, as I found out from the reaction of one of my Ilford students when I said he was a 'right bugger'. There was a famous example back in the times of censorship when the Lord Chamberlain insisted that the word 'bugger' be replaced by the word 'bleeder', which has unfriendly connotations in all dialects.

    These kind of changes are seen elsewhere. In Valencia 'hijo de puta' is almost a term of endearment. Use the phrase with a Galician and he will quite likely blast you with both barrels of his shotgun.

  16. Rob said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    In Bristol the phrase bugger is used frequently, it is just meant for annoyance and is not frowned upon, but in schools it is not such a good phrase.

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