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English future constructions

English future constructions

In 2008 at the age of 59 I returned to the University of Edinburgh for 2½ years, studying Philosophy and Linguistics. The highlight of those 2½ years, for me, was the honours class on Syntactic Theory and English Syntax given by Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics. Geoff is a brilliant lecturer and a real fun guy, passionate about his subject, inspiring, witty, unconventional and outspoken – see this charmingly written career summary.

I wrote the following essay as mid‑semester coursework for that class. My essay provocatively argues that there is a future tense in English, in the face of Geoff’s passionately held view that there is not. Flaunting such heresy without enough space to defend it fully, I knew there was no way that Geoff could give me an A grade (≥ 70%) for the essay, but it was more important to me to write honestly what I believe, than to try to harvest a further few marks by toeing the party line. The view that shall and will form a future tense in English is a minority view in academic circles, but there is some recent literature defending it, notably Raphael Salkie’s Will: tense or modal or both (English Language and Linguistics 14.2 2010 pp.187–215), which I find thoroughly convincing. I was not aware of Salkie’s paper when I wrote my essay, but, among the arguments that it puts forward in support of the minority view, there is to be found the same argument that I found about the truth conditions of sentences with future shall and future will.

I was myself pleased with the essay, which Geoff acknowledged as “intriguing” and “well written”, and I did get an A grade for the class as a whole, boosted by my exam mark at the end of the semester.

Here I reproduce my essay word for word, but for the benefit of the general reader I have added mouseover text to explain the meanings of certain terms.


On the popular collaborative blog Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum recounts seeing these words in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh –



He comments –

It seemed to me to provide a very nice illustration of a little‐understood fact: the English language has no future tense. Not a trace of one.

Quite clearly, the inscription intends to assert the existence of the Almighty in the past, the present, and the future. If there were a future tense of be, those who chose the wording would have used it. But they couldn’t, because there isn’t.

(Pullum 2008)

Yet I believe there is a future tense of be. Two, in fact: one using shall, and one using will.

In this essay I am asked to discuss the ways in which reference to future time is made in English. I am asked to pay attention in particular to the constructions in 14 given sentences, and to say something about the mythology of the shall/will distinction. I am also asked to give an opinion on whether English has a future tense (or future tenses), and in that connection I will defend the status of shall and will as markers of future tense.

Ways of referring to future time in English

There are many ways of referring to future time in English. I distinguish seven kinds of way.

1. The futurate

The sentence Sue gets married is grammatical but unlikely. The natural interpretation of it is imperfective: it suggests that Sue regularly gets married. However, Sue gets married soon has a quite different, and perfective, meaning. That construction, using the present tense with a time adjunct to mark future time, is known as the futurate. It is a standard way of telling of a future event arranged in advance. Here the verb get is used in the non‑progressive aspect gets, but it need not be: the progressive aspect Sue is getting married soon is almost identical in meaning. In particular such progressive futurates do not have the “in progress” meaning that is usually conveyed by the progressive aspect.

Notice that the progressive futurate cannot be used if the subject does not refer to an agent. We can say The sun rises at 6 am tomorrow but not *The sun is rising at 6 am tomorrow.

2. Constructions with is…to

The following constructions all tell of Sue’s getting married in the future –

They do not all have the same focus, however. Sue is going to get married soon focuses on her present intention to get married rather than on the future event (CGEL p.211). Sue is about to get married encodes “extreme closeness, immediate futurity” (CGEL p.212), whence the omission of the adjunct soon. Sue is all set to get married soon focuses on Sue’s present state of complete preparedness. Sue is due to get married soon focuses on Sue’s duty to get married in accordance with arrangements that have been made. Sue is to get married soon is perhaps the most neutral of the five expressions. The construction looks ahead to the future, as it did in God, which is to come.

All of these can be equally well expressed in progressive aspect, with little change in meaning –

One of the given sentences is Sue is all set to be married soon. It is the only one of the given sentences not to use the idiom get married. It means much the same as Sue is all set to get married soon, but it uses the passive voice of the transitive verb marry.

3. Constructions with lexical verbs that look to the future

Many lexical verbs, in present tense, look to the future. Thus we have Sue hopes/intends/promises/wants/wishes to get married, and Sue dreads/fears getting married. All of these can equally be rephrased in progressive aspect.

4. Secondary auxiliaries

I follow Frank Palmer and Rodney Huddleston in using the term secondary auxiliary for the class containing the undisputed modal auxiliaries such as can, may, and must, along with the disputed modal or future tense auxiliaries shall and will (Huddleston 1995 p.400).

All of the secondary auxiliaries can look forward to future time: for example Sue may get married soon. Sue shall get married soon is an old‑fashioned construction suggesting that the speaker guarantees the marriage. More neutral constructions are Sue will get married soon and Sue will be getting married soon, which assert the future situation with perhaps a hint of Sue’s volition in the matter.

Sue will have got married by then is the construction traditionally known as the future perfect. It looks ahead to a future time (“then”) when Sue will be in the state of having got married at an earlier, but still future, time. In modern terminology, have got is tenseless in the primary tense system (the auxiliary have being in its plain form have) and perfect in the secondary tense system (got being the past participle of get).

5. 6. 7. Other constructions

Space does not allow me to discuss the use of present tense for future time in subordinate clauses (If Sue gets married, John will be distraught); or the modally remote preterite in subordinate clauses (If Sue got married, John would be distraught); or imperative mood (Sue, get married!)

The shall/will distinction

In their deontic uses – uses that express what is required or permitted – shall and will differ sharply in meaning. For non‑deontic uses, CGEL (p.195) reminds the reader of the following traditional prescriptive rule –

Futurity shall will
Volition/determination will shall

But in truth, the use of shall and will in the era of modern English is extremely complex. In The King’s English, the Fowler brothers, writing as descriptively as they were able, spend 21 pages on the niceties of the matter solely in their own variety of English – educated upper‑class South of England speech of the early 20th Century (Fowler 1906 pp.142–163).

Historically, usage of shall and will has depended on factors such as period, geographical area, social class and age of speaker. I remember shop assistants in the clothing department of the upmarket Jenners in Edinburgh around 1960 asking “Shall Madam try this on?” – a construction that sounds comic 50 years later. Atypically, I learned to speak almost exclusively from my parents and not at all from my peers, and both my parents used shall and will in a way that matched The King’s English almost exactly. I don’t think it prescribed to them: I think it just described the way they spoke. A few days ago I prayed, “Lord God, I pray that the Chilean miners shall be rescued safe and well.” To me, it is entirely natural to render that prayer in reported speech as I prayed that the Chilean miners should be rescued safe and well. That refutes, in my speech at least, Huddleston’s claim that 2nd/3rd person should “is hardly possible as a clearly backshifted counterpart” of 2nd/3rd person shall (Huddleston 1995 p.410). But my speech is old‑fashioned, and I accept that nowadays most English speakers use shall only for 1st‐person futurity, if indeed they use it at all. Times change.

Has English got a future tense?

The traditional view is that English has a future tense, formed from shall and will. That view is challenged by Rodney Huddleston in his paper The case against a future tense in English (Huddleston 1995).

Huddleston concentrates on will rather than shall, as “the latter is vastly less frequent and generally considered a future tense marker only with a 1st person subject” (p.400). He shows that “will and would are present and preterite forms of a single lexeme will” (p.402), and that would is found in all three of the standard uses of the preterite (past time, backshift and modal remoteness). He shows that certain uses of will are undoubtedly modal, notably the volitional will of I’ve explained the position but he won’t help us (p.424). He shows that will belongs syntactically with the undisputed modal auxiliaries like can, may and must (pp.414–415). He points out that even if will does form a future tense then it is certainly not a future tense in a 3‑tense system of preterite, present and future, but is “in a secondary tense system that cuts across the primary one” (p.415) and forms with it a two‐dimensional product as follows –

NON‐FUTURE take(s) took
FUTURE will take would take

However, I believe that Huddleston is wrong in saying that future will belongs semantically with can, may, must and modal will. It is clearly and qualitatively distinguished from these as regards its truth conditions. If I say He may help and he does not, that does not render my statement false. Likewise with can and must. Likewise if I say I’ve explained the position but he won’t help (volitional will) and he changes his mind and does help, that does not render my statement false: at the time I said it, he wouldn’t help. But if I say He will be defeated (future will) and in the event he is not defeated, then my statement was false. Simply, unequivocally, false. That is not the behaviour of a modal verb! That is what distinguishes future will, and equally future shall, from the modals (including modal will and modal shall), and puts them in a separate class of secondary auxiliaries, the future tense auxiliaries.


I conclude therefore that English is a language with a future tense. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Eric P Smith
13 October 2010


  1. CGEL: Huddleston, Rodney and Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

  2. Fowler, Francis G and Henry W. 1906. The King’s English. Oxford University Press, London.

  3. Huddleston, Rodney. 1995. The case against a future tense in English, Studies in Language 19:2 pp.399–446.

  4. Pullum, Geoffrey. 2008. The Lord which was and is. Language Log,
    Accessed 13 October 2010.