Sunday, 1 March 2015

There is No Future Tense!

This blog entry is brought to you by 'pluperfect'.  'Pluperfect':  the blooper of past perfect storytelling.  (Seriously, I hate that word.  It sounds like a blooper in the English lexicon that should be excluded from the dictionary.)

I follow a writing blog that discusses several factors in creative writing.  Among these topics is tense and how it is used in narrative.  Overall, the blog was a great read, but there was one thing that sent shivers of discontent down my spine, and it was in this one sentence:  "There are three basic tenses in English:  future, present and past."  Several grammarians, as well as linguists, would argue that there is something wrong with this proposition.  I used to think it was true.  However, I soon discovered its flawed logic thanks to my English grammar professor at university:

There is no future tense in English.

"What?  Of course there's a future tense!  What're you talking about?" I hear some of you ask through your computer screens while followers of this argument nod their heads in enthusiasm.  Yes, you heard me right.  There is no future tense in English.  Now before you virtually throw textbooks, notebooks, and an assortment of fruit and vegetables my way, I'm going to attempt to persuade you why this is true.  Consider the following sentences:

I go shopping on Saturday.
I'll go shopping this Saturday.
I'm going to go shopping on Saturday.
I'm going shopping on Saturday.
I was going shopping this Saturday...

The first sentence shows a scheduled event that takes place on Saturday.  The second, third and fourth show a plan that is going to take place on Saturday this coming week.  The fifth tells us that there was a plan to go shopping on Saturday, but that plan has changed.  Now look at the verbs:

go (simple present)
will go (modal + verb)
am going to go (semi-auxillary + verb)
am going (present progressive)
was going (past progressive)

All of these statements talk about the future in some way, but they use different grammatical expressions.  The only thing that makes them future is the use of a time marker.

Still don't believe me?  Well, let me tell you that time isn't the same as tense (Does the English Language Have a Future Tense?), so let's look at what we really mean by the term "tense".  According to a site called the Internet Grammar of English, "TENSE refers to the absolute location of an event or action in time, either the present or the past. It is marked by an inflection of the verb."  For those who are caught up on the word "inflection", it means that the verb changes or gets a special suffix that changes the time.  For example, "talk" is the present tense and "talked" is the past tense.  The verb is changed by adding the inflectional morpheme -ed.  The same inflection, or change, in the verb is not used when we refer to the future.

"But wait!" you say as you're working through the explanation.  "What about the 'am going to go' and 'am going'?"  That's where we get into something called aspect.  English has what's called a tense/aspect system.  The tenses are present and past.  The aspects are simple, progressive (or continuous), perfect.  There's also a mix of perfect and progressive.  These can be shown in the following chart.

I walk to school every day.
I walked to school yesterday.
Progressive (Continuous)
I'm walking to school (now).
I was walking to school at 7am this morning.
I have talked to her already.
I had already finished my homework when he called.
Perfect Progressive
I have been waiting for 10 minutes!
I had been waiting for 10 minutes by the time he came.

Unlike present and past, future expressions don't have a special morpheme or form like present and past do.  Certain helping words like the semi-auxillary "be going to" and the modal "will" may be used in certain contexts, such as having a set plan or making decisions, but the main verb stays the same.

So, have I convinced you yet?  Do you agree or disagree?  What are your opinions about future time and how it's expressed grammatically?  I encourage you to leave a comment voicing your ideas.  If you would like more information about where the idea of a future tense came from and whether or not it really matters when teaching English to non-native English speakers, I recommend checking out "Doesthe English Language Have a Future Tense?"  For a brief explanation of tense and aspect, take a look at "the Internet Grammar of English."  And, if your thirst for writing knowledge still hasn't been satiated, I recommend paying a visit to the LonelyWriter.  She provides some great insight on creative writing.

Happy writing people!


  1. I totally agree - and very well explained.

  2. This was an interesting read. I suppose that the English use of auxiliary verbs to denote the future aspect of a verb does not, in fact, qualify. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion how inflection-poor English really is. This mostly occurred to me while talking two semesters of Latin. While I loved Linguistics in college, my emphasis was all on literature and writing. Thanks for setting the record straight!

    1. Hi! Thanks for stopping by and commenting! I really admire your writing insight on your blog as it's helped me in my own creative writing (I never got the opportunity to take creative writing or literature in university, so I need all the help I can get).

      I don't know any Latin, but I read that there's an inflection morpheme for the future tense. Since a lot of English is derived from Latin, I can see where the idea came from. To my knowledge, the non-existence of a future tense is a relatively new concept developed over the past 20 or so years. (Don't take my word for it, though. I have to research that point). I have a grammar textbook from 1996 that states there is a future tense, so I assume it's a recent thing. Japanese English textbooks still teach the future tense, which is really frustrating, but in terms of English education, they're 20 years behind the times.

  3. Just like my professor said: "How many forms does a verb have in English? Is there a future form?"

    And I agree. My local languages (Hindi, Manipuri) have verbs with future form and I'm just wondering if there are any other languages like English that doesn't have verbs of future form or if English is the only one.

    I was quite surprised at first because we've been taught there are three tenses and all those tense forms. But the poor inflection and the Latin influence pretty much explains it.

    1. Hi, hiscolumn! Thanks for commenting.

      Yes, there are other languages besides English that don't have a future tense. Japanese is one, where the future is determined by a time word/expression such as "yesterday" or "last week."

      My old English grammar textbooks from the 1990s explain that English has a future tense, so I think the fact that there is no future tense in English is a fairly new concept. Most textbooks nowadays don't use "future tense" and explain that there are many ways of expressing future in English.