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The present progressive is very often used to describe future events that are already decided due to fixed plans or arrangements:

  • I'm getting married next month.
  • We're getting new furniture for the office.
  • My friends are coming over tomorrow.

What I'm interested in is the acceptability of the present progressive in sentences where the future is determined, but not due to plans, but rather due to factors beyond human control:

  1. I checked the forecast – it's raining tomorrow.
  2. The license is expiring in two days.
  3. The sun is setting at 4:30 pm tomorrow.

I would appreciate it if native speakers (from both sides of the pond) could write how they feel about each of the above sentences – does it sound awkward? slightly awkward? totally okay? I'd like to get as many opinions as possible.

I've done some research on sentence #3. I've asked two native speakers, and done some research in grammar books and on the Web (including this StackExchange question) – answers have ranged from "totally okay" to "ungrammatical", which is why I was hoping to get some more feedback.

Thank you in advance for your help!

PS. I realize these sentences can be phrased in different ways (e.g. The sun sets at 4:30pm tomorrow. or The sun will set at 4:30pm tomorrow). My question is specifically about the present progressive.

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    BrE as I see it. (1) is acceptable but less idiomatic than 'It's going to be raining tomorrow.' (2) is unacceptable; 'expires' or 'will expire'. (3) might just be heard in some contexts, but is far from being the usual idiomatic choice. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 18 '17 at 16:21
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    AmE: I don't like any of (1), (2), or (3); they're all awkward. I'd probably say It's going to rain tomorrow; the license expires (or will expire) in two days; the sun sets (or will set) at 4:30 pm tomorrow. – Peter Shor Feb 18 '17 at 17:13
  • Thank you @EdwinAshworth and Peter -- judging from the responses so far, this is a controversial topic! More opinions would be very welcome. – Tomasz P. Szynalski Feb 19 '17 at 10:10
  • In AmE they may all be acceptable as you wrote them, but they are more commonly expressed in AmE as @PeterShor offers. – Davo Mar 22 '17 at 16:20
  • As a 67 year old Canadian I can't recall ever hearing any of these forms. I would say/and hear: "It'll rain tomorrow." The license expires in two days." "Sun sets at 4:30 pm tomorrow." Either of the last two could also use "will/'ll + verb" but would be more common in the present. – Al Maki Feb 16 '18 at 1:16
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For what it's worth, Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the following about sentences resembling #2 and #3:

  • It's expiring tomorrow is OK
  • The sun is setting at five tomorrow is "semantically or pragmatically anomalous".

The justification given is that the progressive is restricted to cases where human agency or intention is involved. The authors are both British.

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    One could argue that 'human agency or intention' is only marginally involved in the expiry case, the expiration being automatic at this point. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 20 '17 at 15:30
  • @EdwinAshworth Exactly my thoughts. But I'm trying to be charitable in my reading of Huddleston. Did you notice Huddleston's answer is the opposite of yours: "expiring" OK, "setting" BAD. – Tomasz P. Szynalski Feb 20 '17 at 15:31
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    I'd not raise my eyebrows over 'The license is expiring in the next couple of days' but really don't like 'The license is expiring in two days'. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 20 '17 at 15:44
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    @EdwinAshworth - I don't see the human agency or intention as relevant. // I will try to construct a context that works for the license example. "Your license is expiring in a couple of days and I'm concerned because I know you're going to be tied up at the conference tomorrow and the next day, so I really think we should get that taken care of today." Works for my AmE ear. – aparente001 Feb 20 '17 at 16:28
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    @ aparente001 Yes, I find that far more acceptable. It's perhaps the register involved. 'The license is expiring in two days' perhaps mixes registers incongruously. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 20 '17 at 16:32
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AmE: (2) and (3) are fine to my ears, and (1) sounds slightly weird.

It's easier to see that (2) and (3) actually work fine by posing the corresponding questions:

Could you look at the National Weather Service forecase for me, please? I want to know approximately what time the sun is setting tomorrow.

"When is your license expiring?" "Wednesday. That's in two days. I really need to get cracking."

  • Thanks. How about: "Can you check if it's raining tomorrow?" – Tomasz P. Szynalski Feb 19 '17 at 10:12
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    @TomaszP.Szynalski - That is too much of a stretch. More common: "Can you check if it's supposed to [OR going to OR likely to] rain tomorrow?" – aparente001 Feb 19 '17 at 19:12
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    The snag with this sort of question is that responses based on opinion are invited. And answers lacking authoritative support (from a recognised grammar say, or corpus data) are not suitable for ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '17 at 23:16
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    @EdwinAshworth I am aware of the StackExchange rules, but specific questions like these cannot be answered with corpus data (not enough hits to draw any conclusions), and grammars don't really tell you anything except the opinion of a particular grammarian. I have tried both approaches. The best way would be to run a survey on, say, 100 educated native speakers. – Tomasz P. Szynalski Feb 20 '17 at 14:59
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The present progressive can suggest that an action is going to happen in the future, especially with verbs that convey the idea of a plan or of movement from one place or condition to another: "The team is arriving in two hours. He's moving to Portland this summer." Because the present progressive can suggest either the present or the future, it is usually modified by adverbs of time.

Generally, progressive forms occur only with what are called dynamic verbs and not with stative verbs.

What I'm interested in is the acceptability of the present progressive in sentences where the future is determined, but not due to plans, but rather due to factors beyond human control:

  1. I checked the forecast – it's raining tomorrow.
  2. The license is expiring in two days.
  3. The sun is setting at 4:30 pm tomorrow.

The following example is taken directly from my source given above:

That would tend to suggest that it is grammatically correct, despite the fact that many people might say instead:

  • The team will arrive in two hours.

This is a good example of the difference between common usage and good grammar: many people assume that common usage follows good grammar and vice versa. But of course that isn't always the case.

Often there are perfectly grammatical ways of saying things, which seem to 'sound wrong' to people who simply wouldn't use the same wording and are unaware that it is proper enough grammar or simply don't care.

And conversely, poor grammar is too often introduced into a language through the repetition of common usage. Grammar is not about what 'sounds right', or sounds familiar -- it's about what 'is correct'.

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