Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Tense, Part IV: Future


This post follows the initial article on tense (here) and a discussion of present tense forms (here) and past tense forms (here). The following are examples of varying expressions of tense in different statements. Remember that tense is nothing more than a contrast between the Time of Utterance (TUTT) and either the Time of Assertion (TAST), Time of Completion (TCOM), or Time of Evaluation (TEVL). All of the examples that follow are future tense, regardless of the nature or aspect of the utterances.

Future Tenses

The future tenses are those in which the secondary temporal reference (TAST, TCOM, or TEVL) occurs after the primary reference (TUTT), or visually, with TAST, TCOM, or TEVL occurring to the right of TUTT on the timeline of an utterance. Technically there is no such thing as ‘the future tense’. There are in fact innumerable future tenses with varying degrees of temporal distance between reference points. The greater the temporal distance between the primary and secondary references, the farther in the future the tense is. Common classifications of future tenses include the general future (that which occurs after the present with no defined time), and a variety of future tenses with defined times such as these (listed in increasing temporal distance from TUTT) immediate future, near future, distant future, and far distant future.

TUTT precedes TAST

The temporal relationship of verbs used in utterances occurring in non-durational aspects, in which the verb used does not have a durational aktionsart (The plumber comes tomorrow.) are represented in this diagram.   Generalizations and habitual truths are not included in this group (see TUTT < TEVL below).   Although common in many languages, this form is quite rare in English as most verbs either have a durational aktionsart or are used in the durational aspect (English has only one durational aspect — usually called “the progressive”). In utterances of this type, the time of utterance precedes the time of assertion. In the diagram at left, time of utterance is given as present, but could be in the future or the past.  The utterance remains future tense however so long as TAST occurs to the right of TUTT on the timeline of that utterance.  For example if  TUTT were in the future, so long as TAST is further in the future than TUTT (to the right of TUTT), the utterance is still future tense.  Likewise, if TUTT were in the past, TAST may also be in the past so long as it occurs at a time after that past TUTT (again, visually to the right of it on the timeline of the utterance). Because verbs in these forms have no measurable duration the TAST is punctular – it’s a single point along the timeline rather than a range.

TUTT precedes TEVL

As with TUTT < TAST described above, a common future tense usage occurs with generalizations and habitual truths. These types of utterances always occur in non-durational aspects. In these types of utterances, there is no specific verb occurance to observe (and thus no assertion). Instead, the purpose of such utterances is to merely inform. In these utterances, a generalization or an habitual truth about the future is attested as true (or questioned for trueness in interrogative forms). The earliest point at which these attestations can be evaluated as true or not serves as the secondary temporal reference for such constructions. This diagram shows this temporal relationship in the future tenses with TEVL preceding TUTT. In other words, for generalizations and habituals, the attestation may not be evaluated as being true until a point in time after the time of utterance. Examples of this in English include such statements as “Our supply of fossil fuels shall only last 50 years(generalization)” and “I am going to go to the gym everyday this year (habitual).”

TAST occurs during a range of time ending after TUTT

This diagram reflects the temporal relationship within utterances used in non-durational aspects involving activities (Santa Clause comes tonight.) or other types of utterance in which the verb employed has a naturally durational aktionsart (The TV will work if you hit it.), and any durational aspect aspect utterance regardless of whether the aktionsart of the inclusive verb(s) is durational or not (John and Mary are going to the cinema later.) in the future.   It shows that in the future tenses, the time of utterance occurs before the time of assertion ends.  For this type of utterance, TAST is not a point, but rather a span of time — the duration in which the verb occurs. The smaller arrows in the diagram show that the action may begin at a time prior to the time of utterance, and continues for a length of time, but ends at a time beyond the time of utterance.   In future tense constructions, the contrast is made between the TUTT and that portion of the TAST that falls at some point within the range of the verb’s duration which occurs after the TUTT.

TUTT precedes TCOM

In this diagram and the following, the secondary temporal reference is TCOM – the time of completion, which represents the termination of the verb, an end point. This is the diagram for perfected non-durational forms in the future (TUTT < TAST and TUTT < TEVL). These forms are often referred to as ‘the future perfect’ or ‘future perfect simple’.  These types of utterances do not provide information regarding the duration of the verb, but rather, merely establish that the assertion or attestation of the utterance is completed as of a time after the time of utterance. Because TCOM always beyond TUTT, the time of completion is always read ‘as of [x time in the future].’ For this reason, a specific time after TUTT must be used with perfected forms in the past tenses, either as a specific time phrase (last week, yesterday, etc), or expressed as contextually beyond TUTT. Examples of this form include “John will have eaten breakfast before he eats lunch, (contextual)” and “I will have finished my project by the end of the week (specific time phrase)” (both perfected TUTT < TAST), and “By the mid 21st Century our supply of fossil fuels will have been exhausted” (perfected TUTT < TEVL).

TUTT precedes TCOM which occurs during or at the end of TAST

As with the above diagram, the secondary temporal reference for this type of utterance is TCOM – the time of completion which represents the termination of the verb, an end point. This is the diagram for perfected durational forms (TAST occurring over a duration which terminates after TUTT).  In the future tenses, these are often referred to as ‘future perfect progressive’ or ‘future perfect continuous’. Whereas in the perfected non-durational forms above, TCOM represents an absolute terminal point of the verb, in perfected durational forms, TCOM may represent either the terminal point of the verb (that time at which it is completed or finished and beyond which it does not continue), or TCOM may represent any point within the duration of the verb, up to which that completed duration can be measured (an interruption).   It is possible that the TAST of the verb could continue beyond the TCOM, but this is irrelevant as the focus of such utterances is not TAST but TCOM and its temporal relationship with TUTT. These types of utterances are normally used to provide information regarding the duration of the verb up to a given point in the future, be that point the terminus of that verb’s duration or a point within the duration.   In the future tenses, the duration of the verb may be measured up any specific point beyond the time of utterance. Because TCOM always after TUTT, the time of completion is always read ‘as of [x time in the future],’ where x is the specific future time.  For this reason, a specific time beyond TUTT must be used with perfected forms in the future tenses, either as a specific time phrase (by next week, by tomorrow, etc), or expressed as contextually after TUTT. While a specific measure of duration may be used with such utterances [explicit], it is not required as some verbs which have a durational aktionsart may also be conveyed as having completed duration simply by their nature [implicit]. Examples include “John offered to help this evening, but I will have already been been finished by then, (perfected TUTT < TAST with implicit duration and specific future TCOM)” and “I’ve been told I may be promoted, but I will have been working here for three years by then. (perfected TUTT < TAST with explicit duration and contextual future TCOM).

Continue reading Tense: Conclusion & Review

February 3, 2010 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity

When do you use shall versus will?  And what is the difference between ‘will read’ and ‘going to read’?

Years of teaching English to non-native speakers has given me a sort of insider’s view into this shall versus will phenomenon.  What I have found is that asking any two native-speaking English instructors when to use a certain grammatical or lexical construction will often result in three, four, five, or more often conflicting ‘rules.’  What this shows is that not only do students of the language not generally understand the grammar, but most often native speakers and in also those tasked with teaching the language do not fully understand the grammar and proper rules of usage.  In surveying speakers of the language, teachers, and the content of method books and grammar guides, it has become quite obvious to me that in regard to futurity in English this confusion and uncertainty goes well beyond the simple issue of shall versus will but that it extends to the entire spectrum of future forms.

This paper discusses the role of tense, aspect, and mood in expressing future in English.  It discusses at length the ten ways of expressing the future and provides detailed rules on the usage of forms such as shall, will, be going, be about, etc.

It dispels folk etymology and opinionated theories on when to use one form or the other, instead providing a thorough inventory of all forms with detailed discussion of the roots of these forms, historical changes, and current usage.  It is hoped that through a better understanding of the differences in these forms and their usage, that speaker and language educators may better equip themselves to teach this often challenging bit of grammar.

Click below to read the entire paper or download it to your computer:

An Inventory and Discussion of English Futurity

December 17, 2009 Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments