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I'm a native English speaker and I consider myself to have a very competent understanding of English grammar.

Recently, I have started believing that there is no future tense in English grammar.

Here are some examples of sentences that I previously believed were future tense, but now believe are either present tense or invalid (broken) English grammar:

I will do my homework tomorrow.

I say that this is present tense. The full (uncontracted) sentence is

I (have the/a) will to do my homework tomorrow.

Strictly, this sentence refers to the writer's will in the present. The usage seems to have been contracted in recent centuries, but "will" remains a noun and this seems to be the only grammatically-valid interpretation of this sentence.

I am going to the bathroom.

I say that this is present tense.

The only valid interpretation of this sentence is that the speaker is currently going to the bathroom (in the present, right now). Whether "going to the bathroom" means traveling to a bathroom or peeing in their pants is open to interpretation, but this does not affect the tense. The tense is determined by "am", so the tense is present.

I am going to school tomorrow.

I say this is invalid English grammar.

This is as invalid as I am going to school yesterday. The tense is present because of "am", and the sentence can not be validly interpreted as it stands.

In examples such as

We are going to Italy in Spring,

this is invalid for the same reason as above: "are" determines that the tense is present, and then a non-present time period is appended. This is as invalid as

We are going to Italy two years ago.

These are just a couple of examples but I have looked at many examples of future tense usage and I do not believe there is a valid future tense in English grammar.

Question: Is it true that English has no future tense?

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Short answer: Yes, of course English has future tense ... for everyone except the most technical, and for them it doesn't have a future tense because they define "have a tense" in a non-intuitive way. So you can go ahead and say confidently that English has future tense.

Longer answer:

Most everybody (within the monolingual English speaking community) thinks of "I will do that" or "I am going to do that" are unequivocally future tense. It would be perverse to think otherwise; both those sentences describe a situation that occurs in the future. That's how most people, school teachers, newspaper editors, newspaper readers, most everybody thinks. And that is correct. For the majority of people.

However, language scholars, that very small set of expert thinkers who tend see a lot more theoretically of English and also of other languages, use that phrasing differently. "X has a Y tense" is technical terminology that means "The language X has verb forms that inflect for the Y tense". That is, the verb form itself is modified rather than having extra words around it to convey the tense. You have to use 'will' or 'going to'. English can express future tense grammatically (with 'will'), but technically it doesn't 'have' a future tense (assuming that what is meant is 'future tense inflections'). 'Will' is definitely a grammatical marker for future time. 'Going to' is less definitely a grammatical marker, it might be more accurately and technically referred to as a periphrastic future.

I think that a less misleading way for more pedantic people to express it would be to say that English has only two inflected tenses. That way both insiders and outsiders to the technical community of linguists would both know what is going on.


As to your specific examples, the way you label them doesn't really correspond to what anybody else says, informally or formally. I think you may be taking things too literally, or choosing one aspect of a definition out of the expected context.

I will do my homework tomorrow.

This is not present tense, it is future, whether 'tomorrow' is mentioned or not.

I am going to the bathroom.

Yes, This is present tense. Present continuous. You are in the middle of the action of traveling to the bathroom (or in AmE, it is a euphemism for in the middle of the action of micturating or defecating).

I am going to school tomorrow.

This is totally valid English grammar. The use of tomorrow changes the interpretation of 'going' from 'traveling' to the marker of the future. Or it could be interpreted as a contraction of "I am going to go to school", explicitly the future of 'traveling'

We are going to Italy in Spring

Totally correct usage. Ambiguous tense, but not ambiguous meaning.

We are going to Italy 2 years ago

Obviously wrong. Whether present or future, 2 years ago is contradictory, being in the past.


You might wonder why 'will' isn't considered to definitively say that "English has a future tense" (in the pedantic sense that is. In the less fully formal sense it totally says that English has a future tense). 'Will' is syntactically in the category of 'modal verbs', can may must should etc. Its meaning is certainly future time, but syntactically it is a helper (auxiliary) verb. But pedantically, 'will' is not grammatically about tense (I find this reasoning a bit of a stretch, but that's what being pedantic does).

To compare, French can express the future by either "Je verrai la peinture" (I will see the painting = I see-future the painting) or "Je vais voir la peinture" (I am-going to-see the painting). The first one is a true future tense by having an altered root and an inflection, the second expresses the future by a separate word (just like the English 'going to'). English doesn't have a corresponding inflected form for the future. So linguists say 'French has a future tense but English does not have a future tense'. That's just strange sounding technical language for linguists.

This might seem like cavilling (isn't all technical pedantic terminology there to cavil?) but it is useful terminology for language comparison. Some languages inflect for all tenses, and some don't have any inflections for any grammatical function.

Chinese, for example, is said to have no tense at all. You might wonder how they convey information. How do they wake up in the morning? How do they tie their shoes? Oh my god the Chinese are so inscrutable, with no sense of time they see past and future at once like those aliens in that movie and it's so beautiful and sad at the same time and etc etc

That is of course nonsense. What is the case is that verbs in Chinese (Mandarin) do not inflect for tense at all (or for anything), but they can just as easily express the time of something happening by using ... it's going seem stupid when I say it... it's so obvious... words for time. 'Now', 'next week', 'before my parents met'.

Also, people aren't idiots; context can help determine the sense. Suppose you can't hear how 'die' is conjugated in 'When my great-grandfather [die]' . Did that happen in the past, or in the future? If I am telling you this from my retirement home, it probably happened in the past. If I am visiting a nursing home, it's probably in the (near) future.


Here's a weird thing about English. Consider the sentence "I visit the park on Saturdays". There's no tense there, there's no inflection. But it means that you often go to the park in the past and will likely do so in the future. How do they know when exactly they're doing something? Is anything specified at all? How do they wake up in the morning? Oh my god the English are so inscrutable, how can they know anything, they are timeless and can see equally into the past and the future like time travelers it's so beautiful and sad at the same time etc etc

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Feb 8 '18 at 16:44
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    "We are going to Italy 2 years ago" is correct in some niche usages. It works for literal or figurative time travel (where "two years ago" is more like a destination),but it also works as setting a new baseline for now for the rest of this narrative. – fectin Feb 10 '18 at 16:14
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    What I want to know is how linguists get up in the morning, tie their shoes, etc... – msouth Feb 11 '18 at 4:55
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    + yet another 1 for "it is so beautiful and sad at the same time". – S Conroy Sep 22 '18 at 22:11
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Strictly speaking, no Germanic language has a future tense, only a present and a preterite. All others are analytic tenses compounded with various auxiliaries. Since the present tense simple in English, unlike in other modern Germanic languages, is never used to describe what's happening right now, perhaps it would be better to call it the non-past. The progressive/continuous form has, for the most part, limited the simple present to 1) habitual/repeated actions, 2) general truths, conditions, and opinions — and, in conjunction with a temporal adverb, 3) future events.

Old English had no future tense and only the beginnings of an analytic one:

Mind that there was no Future tense in the Old English language, and the future action was expressed by the Present forms, just sometimes using verbs of modality, willan (lit. "to wish to do") or sculan (lit. "to have to do").

This parallels other ancient Germanic languages such as Old High German or Gothic: when translators into those languages encountered Latin or Greek future tenses, they either paraphrased or used the present tense.

The modal distinction between volition and agency is preserved in Middle English:

The future tense is formed much the way the future tense is formed in Modern English. The only difference is that shall (used as forms schullen, shallen, etc) and will (forms as willen, wellen, etc) had a difference in meaning. This difference is that will indicated desire or wish (much like High German Wollen), so saying I will go there was similar to I want to go there, and shall was involved indifference of the will, so saying I shall go is similar to I'm gonna go without desire to do so. The verb to go was not used to form the future tense, but the verb to be with an infinitive construction could have been.

Your thesis is that this modality still obtains today and that the so-called future tense is in fact not temporal but modal. If we were still speaking early Middle English, you'd likely be correct. In the transition to Modern English, however, modality began to yield to temporality. The only vestige of modality is the difference some British speakers make between I shall and I will, a nuance which has completely disappeared in American English.

The common way to form what is termed the future in English is will/shall + bare infinitive:

In 3.5 billion years, the sun will be 40 percent brighter than it is right now, which will cause the oceans to boil, the ice caps to permanently melt, and all water vapor in the atmosphere to be lost to space. Under these conditions, life as we know it will be unable to survive anywhere on the surface, and planet Earth will be fully transformed into another hot, dry world, just like Venus.

This description of the future end betrays not a trace of modality, but does strongly suggest that Modern English has a strictly temporal future tense, albeit with a former modal as auxiliary.

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    Consider providing examples of the “be + infinitive” periphrastic versions, as they may shed light on the nuance possible with these multi-verb constructions. “I am to have lunch with your mother tomorrow. I was to have lunch with your mother yesterday. If I were to have lunch with your mother some time, would she tell me then?” Those are just like the be going +infinitive“ and “will + infinitive” so-called “futures” in all regards, including that the base verb (be, would) is actually morphologically inflected for genuine tense — whether present, past, or unreal. – tchrist Feb 7 '18 at 16:06
  • The distinction between shall and will hasn't completely disappeared in American English...it's not that common anymore, but it's apparently alive and well in legal contexts. – cHao Feb 10 '18 at 17:00
  • True, as in "The name of this corporation shall be..." but that's a long way from everyday speech. – KarlG Feb 10 '18 at 17:51
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Your belief is incorrect. "I will do my homework tomorrow" is not a contracted form, and there is no historical "uncontracted" form which matches your assumption. See Wikipedia entries on future tense and the English use of shall and will

"Will" is an auxiliary verb, which is used to transform other verbs into the necessary tense. Other European languages have similar auxiliary verbs. Interestingly, French uses the same auxiliary verbs as English - "avoir" (to have) is used for the past tense in the same way as we say "I have done something", and "aller" (to go) is used for the future tense in the same way as we say "I am going to do something". German also uses "haben" (to have) for the past tense, but has a separate auxiliary verb "werden" for the future tense.

Originally, "will" did come from the meaning of "intent"; however it was always as a verb, and not as a noun.

As for "I am going to school tomorrow", this is the remnants of Old English not having a future tense and expressing the future by context.

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Allow me to cite an excerpt from an answer posted back in November 13, 2012. The Original Post is entitled How many tenses are there in English?

What is a tense?

In linguistic terminology, "tense" is a part of verbal paradigm that refers specifically to the time of an utterance. It is impossible for any language to have more than three tenses in this sense, since any action is either past, present, or future.

In English, we do the basic tenses this way:

  • Present: I walk to the store.
  • Past: I walked to the store.
  • Future: I will walk to the store.

But what is that with the word will there in the future tense example? It turns out that while English can refer to present and past time using inflections on the verb itself, the future tense always requires another word. Furthermore, there are multiple ways of doing this:

  • I will walk to the store.
  • I'm going to walk to the store.
  • I'm walking to the store in five minutes.
  • I'm about to walk to the store.

So while English has plenty of ways to refer to future actions, in terms of base verbal morphology there are only two tenses in English: present and past.

User/author: @JSBձոգչ

Barrie England's full answer is also well-worth reading, for any users who are still feeling muddled about the idea of English not possessing a future tense. Here is but a snippet

Almost all grammarians recognize only two tenses in English, present and past. […]

For example, regular verbs have four forms. In the case of walk they are walk, walks, walking, walked. In the third person singular, the present tense is walks and the past tense is walked. A clause such as he is walking is made up of the present tense of be and the present participle of walk and expresses progressive aspect.

In the bottomless ocean that is the Internet, there are multiple references confirming or arguing that the English language has two tenses

Perhaps one of the earliest advocates for the two tenses theorem was Joseph Priestly in his The Rudiments of English Grammar, 1761

enter image description here

More recently,

Two Tense Approach
Linguists who favor a binary approach argue that different tenses have to be distinguished morphologically, that is they have to be reflected in inflectional morphology. Accordingly, there are only two tenses, namely ‘past’ and ‘non-past’, as this is the only distinction that is reflected morphologically.

  1. He work - s.

  2. He work - ed.

All other categories of the English tense system are constituted by a combination of one of the two above-mentioned tenses with either a modal verb, or the perfect marker have. The advocates of this approach often conveniently stress the “combinatorial character” (König 1995: 154) of these members by naming them

  • present perfect
  • past perfect
  • future perfect […]

The binary approach is found in “many structuralist accounts” (König 1995: 154) such as The Comprehensive Grammar by Quirk et al. (1985).

On the British Council, and BBC's Learning English websites they state respectively

There are two tenses in English – past and present.
English has only two tenses, the present simple and the past simple.

The world renown linguist and author, David Crystal, belongs firmly in the "two tenses" camp. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2003, Crystal explains

[emphasis in bold mine]
There is therefore a two-way tense contrast in English: I walk vs. I walked–present tense vs past tense. English has no future tense ending, but uses a wide range of other techniques to express future time (such as will/shall, be going to, be about to, and future adverbs). The linguistic facts are uncontroversial. However, people find it extremely difficult to drop the notion of 'future tense' (and related notions, such as imperfect, future perfect, and pluperfect tenses) from their mental vocabulary, and to look for other ways of talking about the grammatical realities of the English verb."

Source: Understanding Verb Tenses

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    Thanks for the David Crystal quote at the end about how extremely difficult people find it to drop those other languages’ tense categories from their mental vocabularies when discussing English grammar. It’s like how students of Ancient Greek learn how to inflect a Greek verb into seven indicative tenses, each with its own morphologies, but to then try to apply to English grammar the Greek imperfect, aorist, perfect, &c is a silly exercise given the comparative paucity of English morphological inflections. – tchrist Feb 8 '18 at 15:31
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    Thanks. A good compilation that nails the issue once and for all. The problem that remains is to persuade learners (and many of their teachers) to talk about future constructions (or some such alternative) rather than the future tense. That this will not be an easy task is evident in the fact that typing future tense into the search box above returns 456 hits. – Shoe Feb 9 '18 at 15:53
  • +1 What Shoe just said. Good answer. Based on authoritative resources. Hope it gets selected. – Araucaria Feb 11 '18 at 14:02
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"I will do my homework tomorrow" is future tense. The fact that there is a homonym of "will" that means "intention" is irrelevant. That's not the word that we're using here. We're using the word that indicates that indicates future tense. The word "fast" can mean, "to go without eating", but that doesn't make the sentence, "Bob runs fast" nonsensical. That's not the definition of "fast" that is intended in this sentence. And if there is some etymological argument that the word "will" indicating future derived from the word "will" meaning intention, no doubt interesting, but still irrelevant. That's not the word that we are using.

"I shall do my homework tomorrow" is also future tense.

"I am going to school tomorrow" is, I suppose, an ambiguous tense. You could say, "I am going to school now" in which case it is clearly present, or "I am going to school tomorrow" in which case it is future. Maybe we could say that's an idiom.

I see some posters on here discuss the idea of changing the ending of a verb to indicate tense. Perhaps one could make some pedantic case about the definition of the word "tense". But I have never heard an English grammarian say that tense can ONLY be indicated by changing the ending on a word. That is A WAY to indicate tense, used in English for some tenses (e.g. "talk", present; "talked", past) but not for others ("will talk", future; "are talking", present continuous). In some languages it is used for all tenses.

Afterthought

It occurs to me that we can easily demonstrate that "will", as in, "I will do my homework tomorrow", is not a contraction for, "I have a will to do my homework tomorrow." Namely: There are many sentences that use the same construction but clearly do not refer to a present will. For example, if someone says, "The weatherman says it will rain tomorrow", there is no one who is willing it to rain. The weatherman may or may not want it to rain. The clouds are certainly not exercising any volition. Indeed, consider, "If the economy continues to do poorly, I will lose my job." Do you suppose that the speaker WANTS to lose his job? Or that some powerful interest is manipulating the economy just to make this one poor schmuck lose his job? No. There's no "will" in the sense of "intent" here at all. Just a future tense.

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    Your first paragraph about polysemy doesn't help. To an analyst, tense is a boolean factor - it can only have two values. In common use, tense encompasses all of the temporal aspects of a verb. – AmI Feb 7 '18 at 22:13
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    "tense is a boolean factor" I don't understand what you mean. My dictionary defines "tense" as "A category or set of verb forms that indicate or express the time, such as past, present, or future, of the action or state." There are way more than two possible tenses. "Boolean" means the only possible values are true or false (and maybe some provision for unknown). What would it mean to say that a verb's tense is "false"? – Jay Feb 8 '18 at 16:59
  • That is an excellent point. There is a word for the boolean factor: pretericity, but that is pretty obscure. It becomes difficult to use words like 'tense' and 'aspect'. One is driven to terms like 'temporal scope'. – AmI Feb 12 '18 at 19:53
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Well, yes and no.

First of all, whether English has or doesn't have future tense doesn't affect its ability to clearly express future, in a manner you have pointed out (I shall also add "I am meeting them on Monday" as a third method of expressing future). From there on it depends on how you define tenses.

It is correct that English doesn't express future via inflection of verbs, but that's not something unique to English. Proto-Indo-European language, the ancestor of all Indo-European languages, didn't have a (formal) future tense. Therefore, while Indo-European languages are very similar in terms of how they express the past tense, they differ more noticeably in their expression of the future tense. Some use auxiliary verbs or other tenses, like in the Germanic or Slavic branch, some have developed new inflection for the future tense, like the Romance languages.

Even in the Germanic branch, there are differences - while English uses will as an auxiliary verb, German uses werden, and ich will (from wollen) reflects its original and now archaic meaning - I want. Using this verb to express future is also not limited to Germanic languages, and although many Slavic languages use (something like) ja budu (I will), inflected version of the verb byti (to be), others use (or used) ja hcu from htieti (to want).

The distinction between the ability to express future and having a future tense is not clear. Some linguists have decided that their language has a future tense, others have grouped it together with the present tense to form a "present/future tense", and some claim that their language has no future tense, even though all these languages still express the future in a more or less same way.

However, I think that English does have a future tense. Consider your example:

I will do my homework tomorrow.

I (have the/a) will to do my homework tomorrow.

It reflects the etymology of this usage of will quite well, but it's not a simple ellipsis, and etymology doesn't equal meaning. When someone greets you with "good morning", you know it really means "I wish you a good morning", or "may you have a good morning", but compare this with your sentences.

If I say "We will have a test tomorrow", you cannot expand it to "We will to have a test tomorrow", because that's not what we really will/want, that's simply what will happen regardless of our will. Since this form is used specifically for the future and cannot be expressed in some other tense, I say that English has a formal future tense.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Feb 11 '18 at 2:19

protected by Mitch Jul 13 '18 at 13:55

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