Author Topic: The six ways that English reckons with the future  (Read 7419 times)

Joe Carillo

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The six ways that English reckons with the future
« on: November 05, 2011, 01:30:52 PM »
Many of us might find it strange that despite the overwhelming richness and diversity of English as a language, its verbs can’t inflect or change in form for the future tense. By some quirk in the development of the English grammar structures, its verbs can inflect only for the past, present, and perfect tenses. To compensate for this grammatical handicap, however, English came up with no less than six ways of reckoning with the future. These six forms evoke the future by appending to the main verb particular combinations of auxiliary verbs in different tenses, and the choice among these future-tense forms primarily depends on which part of the future is important to us or to those telling us about it. This obviously makes it manyfold more complicated for learners to master the English future tense.

To clarify the differences between these six future-tense forms, I wrote an essay on the subject for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004. That essay subsequently became the introduction to Section 7 – “Mastering the English Tenses” of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, which devotes nine chapters to an intensive discussion of the various future-tense forms and the adverbs of time. I am now posting that essay here for the benefit of Forum members and guests who’d like to make themselves much more precise and expressive in evoking the future in their written and spoken English. (November 5, 2011)

Though very rich and diverse, English can’t inflect for the future tense

Despite the overwhelming richness of the English language, its verbs have the handicap of not being able to morph by themselves into the future tense. As we all know, they inflect only for the past, present, and perfect tenses. For instance, “give” turns to “gave” in the past tense, “gives” in the present tense, and “given” in the perfect tense; in most cases, in fact, English verbs inflect themselves for the perfect tense in the same way as they do for the past tense, as in “wanted” for both the past and perfect tenses of “want.” Yet when they turn to the future, all of the English verbs can’t do anything to themselves; they simply don’t have the ability to inflect for it.

English verbs never got to internally work out an inflection for the future tense, unlike, say, Tagalog with its future-tense “pupunta” (“will go”) for the infinitive “pagpunta” (“to go”). It’s as if the Angles (the ancient forebears of the English people), too preoccupied perhaps with settling in what is now England after crossing the channel from the European mainland, never found the need or the time to work out the future tense into their verbs.

To compensate for this structural oversight in its verb-building efforts, however, the English language came up with no less than six ways of reckoning with the future. The first two, of course, we already know by heart. They are the simple future tense, which puts the auxiliary verb “will” ahead of the verb stem, as in “will give,” and the future perfect tense, which uses the so-called temporal indicators to situate actions and events in various times in the future, as in the use of the future perfect “will have given” in the following sentence: “By this time tomorrow, she will have given me her answer to my marriage proposal.” In both cases, instead of inflecting itself, the verb “give” took the expedient of harnessing one and two auxiliary verbs, respectively, to make its two visions of the future work.

English then dealt with the future tense even more purposively by coming up with four more grammatical stratagems to express it, in the process making its future tense more complicated than that of some other languages with elaborate future-tense inflections built into their verbs. These future-tense forms and the grammatical structures English developed for them are as follows: the arranged future, also known as the present continuous; the predicted future; the timetable future, also known as the present simple; and the described futures, also known as the future continuous.

All of these forms evoke the future by appending to the main verb particular combinations of auxiliary verbs in different tenses. The choice among these forms depends on which part of the future is important to us or to those telling us about it, and their semantic value lies in the fact that they enable us to make fine distinctions as to whether what will happen is a regular event; as to whether something is unavoidable or prearranged or something we or other people want or wish to happen; as to how long the wait will be until something happens; and as to the degree of certainty that something will happen.

We all know that the future is extremely flexible; in contrast, there’s really nothing we can do to change the past and there’s not really much we can do to alter the evolving present. Unless we are a dyed-in-the-wool believers in determinism and predetermination—both aver that all acts of will or natural occurrences are causally predetermined by preceding events, natural laws, or the divine—we will find many occasions to use the arranged future in our spoken or written prose. The uniquely human ability to plan and shape future events comes into play here.

The arranged future or present continuous means that we have decided what to do but have not yet executed that decision: “We are doing overtime work this coming weekend; client wants the marketing plan first thing on Monday.” “The charming rogue begged on bended knees so I’m pardoning him next month for that act of humility.” “She is leaving with me for my scheduled sabbatical in Rome; all the bookings have already been arranged.”

Note that the arranged future uses the present-tense form of the auxiliary “to be” in tandem with the present participle (“-ing” form) of the verb: “are doing,” “am pardoning,” and “is leaving.” This is the so-called continuous future, which indicates that the future action started when the decision was made and will continue until the moment that the action is finished. To make sure that it doesn’t wrongly convey the idea that the future is happening right now, the arranged future must often use clear temporal indicators, like “this coming weekend,” “next month,” and “my scheduled sabbatical in Rome” in the sentences given as examples in the preceding paragraph.
From the book Give Your English the Winning Edge by Jose A. Carillo © 2009 by the author, © 2010 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: January 11, 2018, 12:54:33 PM by Joe Carillo »