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Here's a dialogue:

a. "What happens next?" "Only time will tell."

Both the sentences describe a future event. But the first is in the present tense, whereas the second is expressed with 'will'.

Why the difference?

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  • "What happens next?" implies that the person being asked can reasonably be thought to know. For example if you are on a theme park ride with someone who has ridden it before you could ask "What happens next?" when the car pauses and they might reply "We go down a vertical drop". However it's also possible to say "What will happen next?" When no one can know and receive only the answer "Only time will tell". "What happens next" is sometimes used in place of "What will happen next" but, strictly speaking, the two sentences have different meanings.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 13:02
  • @BoldBen I for one would normally use "What happens next?" even if the listener doesn't seem to know what happens next. On the other hand, I would only use "Only time will tell" and never "Only time tells".
    – listeneva
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 13:31
  • Both of these expressions are fixed phrases – and in fact, 'only time will tell' must be classed as an idiom. 'What is going to happen next?' is grammatical and perhaps more logical, but is less punchy. 'Only time will tell' can't be tinkered with. Using the present-tense-for-future is common in English ('we fly to Brussels tomorrow'), so it's only the juxtaposition of 'happens' and the future construction 'will tell' that might cause consternation. But we should be more taken up with the narrative and a mellifluous style than with slight peculiarities of style here. Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 18:33

3 Answers 3

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"Only time will tell." This can be interpreted as a prediction or a fact about future.

According to "Grammar and Vocabulary for FCE" by Luke Prodromou, "will" can be used for decisions made at the moment of speaking, predictions (often with I believe, expect, etc.), offers or willingness, requests, firm intentions and promises, threats and facts about future.

The present simple tense can also be used to talk about future. It often happens when we talk about timetables, but it's not the case here. The question "what happens next?" sounds like the speaker feels the future is mapped out, if you like. If they don't, why do they ask? After all, no one knows what the future holds. Do you see what I mean?

However, someone may say "what happens next?" asking about events described in a book or a film. The Present Simple is used for that. But the answer "only time will tell" makes it clear we are not talking about this kind of situation.

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The simple answer is that “What happens next” is rooted in the current time (‘next’ after ‘now’) but “Only time will tell” is rooted in the future (‘tell’ later).

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You should include more context.

What happens next?

Next indicates after some event described or implied in the narrative, and is equivalent to:

What will happen after this event or situation?

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