McWhorter, J, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (2009), p 127. [emboldening mine]

  What they think brings English back to par with German and the rest is, for example, the tricky English future tense. Future tense marking in English is a highly subtle affair, much more so than in other Germanic languages. Could you explain what the difference in meaning is between I will go, I’m going to go, and I’m going? They are not just interchangeable ways of expressing futurity. Try this: you tell someone that you’ve always wanted a pair of argyle socks and they say, “Okay, tomorrow we’ll buy you some.” Now, imagine if they said instead, “Okay, tomorrow we’re going to buy you some.” Notice how that second sentence has a different meaning—it sounds vaguely confrontational. Nobody taught you that—it’s a subtlety of English grammar. It’s hard, this English future—I am so thankful I learned it from the cradle. A non-native speaker I knew whose English was truly spectacular once said when I asked her age, “I turn twenty-five.” Mmm, not quite. It has to be “I’m turning twenty-five.” Only if you started with a time expression could you use the bare

p 128

verb: “Tomorrow I turn twenty-five.” Subtle—or, to a non-native, hard.

Can someone please expound the emboldened sentence, and help me understand this subtlety? The going-to future doesn't feel 'vaguely confrontational' to me at all.

  • 2
    I don't agree with the author at all. Either about that sentence or about the statement at the end discussing how an expression of age must be phrased. – Jason Bassford Jul 5 '18 at 4:59
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    The turning twenty-five example rings true. The allusion to a vague confrontation probably turns on the author's own history with the phrase. It's possible to read it that way, but it's also possible to read it differently. – Lawrence Jul 5 '18 at 5:16
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    Going to buy sounds more definite to me, but not “vaguely confrontational.” – KarlG Jul 5 '18 at 6:49
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    These judgements seem very subjective, and probably are based on the immediate speech community in which one acquires the language. I must say I agree with most people here in that I cannot see any confrontation in the going to future either. – Oliver Mason Jul 5 '18 at 9:52
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    “Okay, tomorrow we’re going to buy you some” can be said in a way that's full of promise and considerateness. “Okay, tomorrow we’ll buy you some” can sound very dismissive. It seems to be a subtlety of English grammar too far for some. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 5 '18 at 10:20

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