Does English have a future tense? Many linguists say no.
'English has no future tense, because it has no future tense inflections'
by Richard Nordquist
Updated April 30, 2017
Legend has it that the final words of French grammarian Dominique Bouhours were, "Je vais ou je vas mourir; l'un et l'autre se dit, ou se disent." In English that would be, "I am about to--or I am going to--die. Either expression is used."
As it happens, there are also multiple ways of expressing future time in English. Here are six of the most common methods.
the simple present: We leave tonight for Atlanta.
the present progressive: We're leaving the kids with Louise.
the modal verb will (or shall) with the base form of a verb: I'll leave you some money.
the modal verb will (or shall) with the progressive: I'll be leaving you a check.
a form of be with the infinitive: Our flight is to leave at 10:00 p.m.
a semi-auxiliary such as to be going to or to be about to with the base form of a verb: We are going to leave your father a note. But time is not quite the same as grammatical tense, and with that thought in mind many contemporary linguists insist that, properly speaking, the English language has no future tense.
What is the difference between being able to talk about the future, and having a future tense?
PS I highly recommend checking out the comment thread that starts with chirelchirel's comment below. It offers some interesting twists and turns on this topic.
Something has to change in the verb for it to be future tense. I'm not an expert on tense vs mood so I'm not going to argue for or against will being future but I can give an example of talking about future without future tense.
Ostan maitoa is Finnish for I am buying milk. (ostan = I buy, maitoa = partitive of milk)
Ostan maitoa huomenna = I will buy milk tomorrow (huomenna = tomorrow)
The exact same sentence but with a time marker. Clearly we can still talk about future but it would be hard to argue that using an adverb means we have a future tense.
I'm not sure what to make of this as Finnish doesn't have a future tense, we use the present tense to express future and we also have some structures with auxiliary verbs. But then we also have compound tenses (perfect and pluperfect) for the past that are formed with past tenses of olla (to be) that are conjugated and a partciple of the main verb... so I don't really see a problem in labeling will+verb as a future tense at the same time as I understand perfectly how it can be possible to express future without a specific tense.
It probably merits mentioning that in linguistic logic, present perfect and pluperfect aren't "tenses." They're aspects of the present and past tenses (the perfect aspect in particular).
I don't think the issue is properly about auxiliary verbs. For instance, I don't think the statement that English has only two tenses means that one is also stating that Russian doesn't have a future tense for imperfective verbs just because they happen to require an auxiliary verb (i.e. it's the specific nature of the auxiliary verbs, not their mere existence that matters), but I might easily be wrong.
I just read the official Finnish definition on 'tempus' which in English is 'tense'. http://tieteentermipankki.fi/wiki/Kielitiede:tempus (You can try GT on it, but it'll probably be a mess...) It verifies what I said above that Finnish has morphological tenses (present, imperfect) and compound tenses (perfect, pluperfect) (note that it's not present perfect, that's an English thing). So like I said Finnish has four tenses, none of which is future, though one is used to express future.
There's a distinction between how "grammarians" and linguists use the word "tense." This article sort of works through the different versions (also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_tense#Uses_of_the_term). For a grammarian, the number of English "tenses" is traditionally 12. Using the explicitly linguistic concept of "tense", undoubtedly Finnish has two.
Notice, for instance, how the basic breakdown of present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect is titled "Tense-aspect forms," not just "Tenses" in the English Wikipedia article.
Ok, I have to say this is weird as I have studied Finnish in the university and I've never heard the claim that we'd have just two tenses (I wonder if it's actually more a problem about translating the terminology) but this article states that Finnish indeed has two https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_tense#Other_languages
Though when I go to the equivalent Finnish page, it says that Finnish has four tenses. Which makes me wonder if it's actually a difference in how things are analyzed. Maybe Finnish linguists are more of the type you call grammarians, I don't know. Btw. The same Wikipedia article says that it can be said that Finnish has two (almost obsolete) future tenses, making the number of tenses six (or three).
I find it really cool when these situations arrive to my attention. Not just in linguistic matters, mind you.
Anthropologist, Dr. Frake, demonstrates that culture determines what characteristics count as significant:
[Quote] “…agriculturists of the central Philippines…partition their plant world into more than 1,600 categories, whereas systematic botanists classify the same flora in less than 1,200 species.… [from this] one learns what the Hanuóo consider worth attending to…(Frake 55).
Source: Frake, Charles O. ""Cultural Ecology and Ethnography." American Anthropologist 64.1 (1962): 53-59. Print. (Retrieved from JSTOR on July 19, 2009.)
People can be in the habit of treating categories as objective and infallible. However, categories are often created to emphasize cultural values. Not all cultures value the same things. This is part of how many social aspects evolve, including language. :)
The idea that English wouldn't have a future tense becomes increasingly sillier when you start comparing it languages that actually lack that form. I say this, coming from a language that officially (I kinda also wanna say traditionally) does not have a future tense, but in which some colloquial forms are starting to create one.
I must say that I find this quite puzzling, as I cannot see on what basis (most?) linguists claim that English does not have a future tense. Do they have in mind a purely morphological notion of 'tense'? From a semantic point of view, it is obvious that you can refer to (often hypothetical) future states, actions and events (e.g. by saying something like 'Trump will no longer be president in 2021').
Also, it is quite common (at least in school grammars, but perhaps not in formal linguistics) to distinguish between synthetic and analytic or periphrastic verb forms: for instance, the passive voice in Ancient Greek is expressed by means of a synthetic verb form, while it is not in English and many other modern languages. Does this mean that Ancient Greek has a passive voice, while English does not?
So unless someone presents a really cogent argument as to why English has no future tense, I would just say that the language has a future tense, albeit one expressed via periphrastic verb forms.
You can find the argument in links I have provided in other parts of this thread. Not being a professional linguist, I cannot claim that I understand them.
This article is linked from one of the above: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005471.html It's actually readable (if far from making an open and shut case in my eye) and gives references for further reading.
Many thanks for the link, which I find very instructive. I guess you can extract three main arguments (or at least suggestions) from that text:
(1) In order to refer to a future moment in English, you have to avail yourself of an 'array of idioms and periphrastic work-arounds'. This is the (in my honest opinion unconvincing) argument that I have hinted at in my comment.
(2) Most of the constructions used to refer to the future (the paradigmatic case being the auxiliary 'will') have a variety of meanings and are not essentially or per se about future moments in time. This argument is more compelling. For instance, French has a genuine future tense, namely the 'futur simple'. And these forms are very rarely used for other functions. But note that you can use the 'futur simple' of 'être' and 'avoir' in some (borderline?) cases to indicate that an event is highly likely: e.g. 'Elle sera déjà à la maison', 'Elle aura déjà la clef'.
(3) The constructions used to refer to the future in English can be conjugated in such a way that they no longer refer, at the moment of utterance, to a period of time that is yet to come. This is a strong argument, though I do not quite understand the example Pullum cites to drive home this point: 'They said it would be completed by Friday' involves indirect speech, thus creating further complications. The fact that the 'will be completed' construction no longer refers to the future is arguably due to the past tense in the main clause, and not to the fact that the auxiliary 'will' has been conjugated. As a matter of fact, one rarely (never?) uses 'it would be' constructions to refer to past rather than hypothetical happenings. But the argument works well with constructions such as 'is going to', 'is about to', etc.: when conjugated in the past tense, these clearly refer to past occurrences, as in e.g. 'He was about to leave' (at the moment of utterance, he probably has already left). Note that you cannot simply conjugate a genuine past tense, but need a further auxiliary verb to do so. For it to no longer refer to a future moment in time, 'elle arrivera' has to be changed into 'elle sera arrivée'.
Good analysis. I agree with you that the point (1) seems weak. Periphrastic structures that are yet tenses seem to be allowed for in other languages even under the same logic that doesn't allow for an English future tense. I would pretty much just say that point (2) seems weak as well, for the reason you cite. The uncontested future tenses are used in other languages to express a variety of meanings, and yet this matter does not arise. I think the case you make for French is even stronger for Spanish, for instance.
Regarding (3), it seems perfectly normal to me to use "would" to refer to the past: "He was sent to jail. It would be three years until he saw his family again." However, I see this as being not really here nor there regarding the main point. Portuguese, for example, frequently refers to the conditional mood (present conditional that is) as "the future of the preterite," but that doesn't mean Portuguese doesn't have a future tense. And, of course, "would" corresponds to both conditional and future-in-the-past meanings. In Russian, which treats sequence-of-tense matters very differently (i.e. by not having them at all), normal future tense forms are simply used in such a situation, irrespective of whether the thing being referred to in the future has already occurred or note. In short, overall, I can't see how this argument actually holds any water at all.
I am still struggling to find any convincing formulation of point (3). I think the main idea is that the auxiliary 'will' does the main work: as soon as you change it to a past form (i.e. 'would') the whole construction ceases to refer to a future moment in time. The same actually holds true for the other constructions ('is going to', 'is about to', etc.). But a genuine future tense does not display this feature: in order to make it not refer to the future, you would have to avail yourself of a completely different construction (e.g. by the introduction of an auxiliary verb). I am not completely conceived by this argument, but I think it is worth some consideration.
I have found two further arguments that might speak against English having a genuine future tense: (a) the sheer abundance of ways to refer to the future in English (Pullum lists eight different constructions) and (b) the fact that you can use other tenses (e.g. the present continuous) in conjunction with temporal adverbs to talk about future events, as in 'I am going to the supermarket tomorrow'. (Though you can do the same in some Romance languages, I would say that it might be less common.)
@ p_genot: Here are some more satisfactory encapsulations of the contemporary linguistic stance. It doesn't seem terribly unfair to say that "tense" in the modern linguistic doesn't really refer to time; it refers to the mechanics of verb inflection.
Many contemporary linguists equate tenses with the inflectional categories (or different endings) of a verb. English maintains an inflectional distinction only between the present (for example, laugh or leave) and the past (laughed, left).
English . . . has only one inflectional form to express time: the past tense marker (typically -ed), as in walked, jumped, and saw. There is therefore a two-way tense contrast in English
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language as quoted at above link
Many recent grammarians do not accept 'future' as a tense because it is expressed periphrastically with auxiliaries and because its meaning is partly modal.
Cambridge History of the English Language as quoted at https://www.thoughtco.com/future-tense-english-grammar-1690879
This kind of makes the matter boring, but it's sort of not surprising in a somewhat more interesting way. This book sums it up nicely on p. 104:
Normally, when we talk about the future, we are either talking about someone's plans, intentions or obligations, or we are making a prediction or extrapolation from the present state of the world... the distinction between tense and mood becomes blurred when it comes to the future.
Given that it's harder to get down to the nature of things in the future, it makes sense that a different kind of criterion entirely is what's used.
To me it seems strange to worry about "would" much at all. So, it's the past tense of "will"? First off, that sounds like a statement just plucked from a traditional grammar reference. I'd want to see an actually laid-out argument that deals with linguistic thinking, not just a statement that it's the case. Maybe it's the past tense only of "will" in its non-future meanings or something. Say there were an English future tense and it were formed with "will," wouldn't that mean that any verb form with "would" is just something that's not future tense, and therefore not directly related to the existence, or not, of a future tense?
I can't put much value in the mooted plethora of forms with future reference. "is certain to be"? That has direct translations in enough languages with unambiguous future tenses to choke a horse. For Spanish, I could give you es a ser, va a ser, and está por ser as direct equivalents for the three at the top, and they only get easier from there down.
In the languages I'm familiar with, present continuous with future meaning is unique to English. However, present simple with future meaning (given a future-reference adverbial phrase) is entirely universal.
I'm hoping my library has a copy of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language :)
@piguy3: Unfortunately Duolingo does allow me to reply directly to your last comment.
I must say that I do not share your worries about 'would' being the past tense of 'will', as I think that even linguistics has to start with some givens. Or else they also needed to provide an argument which shows that 'was' in 'was about to' is indeed the past tense of 'is'. More broadly speaking, they would have to demonstrate that 'I' is somehow related to 'me', etc.
But I share your general feeling that none of the arguments is compelling (I just tried to play the devil’s advocate), and this is quite frustrating since most linguists seem to agree that English does not have a future tense. If you can find any stronger arguments in the ‘Cambridge Grammar’, I would be very grateful if you could share them.
I don't have the time or mental energy to make sure I'm covering all my bases here, but I wanted to throw in an idea:
"would", if seen as the "past tense" of "will", is still definitely pointing to the future, just not the future of the time of utterance.
using some basic wording that someone else on this post used, in something like "They hauled him off to jail, and it would be 3 years until he saw his family again"...the entire scenario starts and finishes prior to the time of utterance, but the "would"'s starting point is "they hauled him off to jail", and refers to the future from that perspective.
Put more simply, "would" is the future of the past.
of course, then, "would" is also used for hypotheticals, conditionals, and counterfactuals, but they all still refer to some future that either may happen or didn't happen. It's just that that "future" may have taken place prior to the time of utterance.
I couldn't find anything online about this, but I do wonder if, perhaps, the reason this question is difficult is because English is in the process of gaining a future tense.
I could imagine that, in the not too distant future, "We leave tonight..." will begin to be seen as archaic. And "We will leave tonight..." will be the correct form. If "will" will be required when expressing an action that will occur in the future, then I won't see how it will be argued that English will not have a future tense.
Xidnaf's most recent video on YouTube talks about the idea that language is getting simpler. It isn't, we just notice the simplification points because we are familiar with the modern complexities.
What matters is: will speakers find the future tense useful? If so, it will last and could expand. If not, it will die. Language is not done adding features or changing.