or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Future Tension

One of the most baffling contentions I've ever read about English is that it has no future tense. The argument is that there is no separate and identifiable verb form which denotes the future, and therefore there's no future tense. There are, of course, a number of future forms: English has as much sense of the future as any other language. But an actual, literal tense? Apparently not.

I love nit-picking as much as the next person, but that's beyond the pale--picking the nits and then shaving them razor-thin. Does English have strictly inflected forms that denote the future, as the Romance languages do? No. Does it have a future tense? Obviously. It's just a future tense that instead of inflecting its verbs happens to use two words. (Or more: there are a number of ways of expressing the future in English. "I will" and "I shall" both use modals, as do the more finely nuanced "I should" and "I must". "I am going to" sets something in the indefinite future: "I am about to" sets it in the immediate future. Then we have such structures as the superficially progressive "I'm leaving", which generally requires a time-stamp to send it into the future, as in "I'm leaving in three weeks", and likewise the apparently simple-present "I go", which is projected into the future by such phrases as "in seven days".)

So I would argue (though I am not a linguist) that yes, English has a future tense. But the form isn't marked, some might argue, to which I would say, yes it is: it's marked by yoking it to a modal or a time-based phrase. But the form of the word itself isn't altered, the exasperated reply might be, and I would have to reply in turn that the form of the word is altered, by having that modal or phrase attached to it--it's altered by being turned from a simple verb into a compound or phrasal verb. I would like to think I could argue in this manner for quite a while, until my interrogator gave up in exasperation, because the one thing I inherited from both parents is a mulish, ineradicable stubbornness.

For learners of the language, the basic future tense is wonderfully easy: convert the verb or its preceding auxiliary into the bare infinitive, slap the word "will" in front of it, and you're in the future. She goes: she will go. He has been saying: he will have been saying. They are expecting: they will be expecting. No conjugation, no inflection, no hassle. It's a thing of beauty.


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