Any consideration of future forms in English will at once come across the vexed question of whether English possesses such a thing as a "future tense". It is questionable whether English possesses such a structure; as Comrie (1990:4) points out, "most European languages have a clear grammatical distinction between past and non-past ... but either no grammatical distinction or a much less clear grammatical distinction between future and non-future." This may well be because "expressions of future time derive diachronically from modal expressions, e.g. of desiderativity, such as the English will " (op. cit. 45).
Hornstein (1990:35) states confidently that "English has a future tense and will is the modal that marks it", going on to claim that "will as future tense acts quite differently from modal will " (1990:38). However, there are good reasons to doubt this claim; as Lyons (1977:677) points out, "Futurity is never a purely temporal concept; it necessarily includes an element of prediction or some related notions." It is worth noting that in predictive sentences will can be replaced by other epistemic modals, resulting in a loss of certainty but not of futurity.
If we accept for the sake of argument that will, whatever time it refers to, is a modal operator, the question remains as to what it conveys. Palmer (1979, 1986) lists no less than seven functions of will (of which only one is epistemic), while from the point of view of speech act theory (see, for example, Austin (1962), Coulthard (1985)), will can be directive (You will do it / Will you do it?), commissive (I'll do it) or deductive (He'll do it). The process for determining the particular meaning of will is dealt with in some detail by Ney (1981), who also provides a useful componential analysis of the various modals.
The Futurates referred to are the Simple Present and Present Progressive "tenses"; there are also good reasons for grouping the structure be going to with the Futurates. The notable feature of these is that the form in each case uses the Present either in the main verb or with the auxiliary be, so it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume, with Binnick (1991:389) that this is due to the present's having "current relevance". However, an analysis of Futurates should not restrict itself solely to the present, since, as Smith (1991:246) points out, "the Futurate requires some kind of plan, schedule, control, or pattern of events," and many if not most of these involve some reference to past events.
The Simple Present or "Tenseless Future" is usually associated with fixed schedules, as in The train leaves at five-thirty. However, this does not seem to be a prerequisite for the use of this form, as shown by Dowtys (1979:160) example:
"Oh, number five wins the competition. His performance was unquestionably better than the others."
The crucial feature of this Futurate seems to be that "the outcome of the matter has already been decided" (ibid.). We might add here "not by the subject", since the only cases where actions originally initiated by the subject take this form are sentences such as I leave tomorrow where although the subject may have initiated a chain of events (by booking a place on a tour, for example) it is now seen as outside their control. This parallels Weckers (1976) view that Present Progressive Futurate indicates a human agent, while in the Simple Present the agent is an event.
It is sometimes suggested that the Simple Present Futurate implies certainty on the part of the speaker. While this may normally be the case, it is not necessarily so (Dowty, 1979:160-161). On some rail networks, the statement The train leaves at five-thirty may be more a matter of faith than certainty; The train will leave at five-thirty may actually inspire more confidence. Without delving into "possible worlds" and intensional logic, the best explanation seems to be that this form carries a sense of in the normal course of events or ceteris paribus.
The use of the Present Progressive seems bound to general considerations of the Progressive aspect. Perhaps the most elegant way of describing this is found in Hofmann (1993:127-129), following Reichenbach (1947). If an event E has a beginning B and a finish F, then a predicate using the Progressive would normally imply: B < r and f > R, where R is the time referred to, and the symbols mean "before" and "after" respectively. If R=S (the time of speaking), then we use the Present Progressive (for a more formal semantic view of the Progressive, and problems arising from this type of analysis, see Dowty (1979), Saurer (1984) and Ogihara (1990)). This explains the choice of Present Progressive for actions which are actually taking place at the time of speaking (I am writing an essay now) but leaves the question of why we would use this form for actions in the future. Hofmann explains this by saying that an action in the past sets in motion an event in the future, bringing forward the beginning of that event. Dowty (1979:154) although working from a different analysis, takes a similar view of "a psychological tendency of humans to extend the temporal duration of an accomplishment ... backward in time to include the preparations for the accomplishment proper."
An alternative way to view this is to postulate an overall event which includes both the past and future events. If we take as an example the sentence I am flying to Istanbul, we have three events:
e1 can be an act such as buying a ticket, making a reservation, or simply announcing the intention to fly. The syntax of E is thus:
An interesting feature is that it is not necessary to refer to e at all; E entails e, but does not require the speaker to state it explicitly. It is this feature which makes the Progressive Futurate so suitable for "lying with grammar", as in the famous I'm washing my hair tonight.
The remaining structure, be going to, is somewhat difficult to classify. Some authors (e.g. Lewis, 1986) treat it as a "prospective" aspect, but there are equally good reasons for treating it as modal in nature. Structurally, it is similar to the group of peripheral modal auxiliaries taking the form
which includes be supposed to, be able to and be about to. Semantically, too, it has a modal nature, since the speaker's judgement is of paramount importance. What this judgement consists of is open to question, however. Kaplan (1989:185) contrasts it with will as follows: "Future expressions with will often have an implication of contingency, which can be seen most clearly in contrast with be going to". While it is certainly true that be going to lacks such an implication, this is probably not the fundamental distinction. The reason for grouping be going to here with the Futurates is that once again the reference is to the present, not the future. Like the Progressive Futurate, there is a future event which is in some way determined by a state of affairs in progress at the present time. The difference here is the nature of this state of affairs: with the Progressive it is brought about by a definite action committing the subject to a future action, whereas in be going to it appears to consist of either:
These two uses seem quite different (notwithstanding Gurr (1994)), so it seems best at the moment to treat intention and "evidence" as two distinct functions.
With regard to selection of forms we can postulate a general "rule of thumb" that the order of tense choice is: Simple Present; Present Progressive; be going to; will, in that if the preconditions for a tense exist, it will normally be used; if not the next in rank will be used (see Dowty, 1979:161). This supports the idea of will as a "default future".
I realise that the analysis above is not particularly rigorous; it certainly would not satisfy a formal semanticist, for example. Nevertheless, I hope it goes some way towards clarifying the rather muddy waters of the English "future tenses".
Robin Turner, 1997.
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