Saturday, August 12, 2006

No future tense? Nonsense!

That's the typical reaction I get when I try to explain that English has no future tense. Perhaps the reasoning is similar to that which lead Ann-Marie MacDonald to write that "the present tense will reign"; People tend to conflate tense and time.

But it's not just this misunderstanding. A future tense seems to be some kind of mark of pride. Being told that your language doesn't have one often brings out Chauvinistic zeal in everyone from English teachers to students from Japan, Korea, Turkey, Finland, or Arab-speaking countries. "Of course we have a future tense," they say. In fact, the only group of students I've come across who have no problem with the idea seems to be Chinese students, who actually tend to be rather proud that Chinese has no tenses at all. (Of course, many languages, such as Spanish, do have a future tense.)

But getting back to English, ESL teachers and our materials are almost unanimous in their agreement that will and (be) going to are (is?) the future tense, despite decades of linguistic analysis telling them otherwise. Yet, it makes far more sense to teach will as one of the nine modals rather than teaching modals and then treating will separately as a tense. Similarly, there's nothing special about the going to idiom, which acts almost exactly the same as planning to, hoping to, intending to, etc. From there, it's a short hop, skip, and a jump to the idea that the present tense is often used to talk about future events, and that the past tense has meanings other than past time.

Perhaps someday there will be a pedagogic ESL grammar series with no future-tense nonsense.

11 comments:

mook said...

I usually try to get around the technical definition by mentioning 'future forms' instead of 'future' tenses.

There are many ways to teach it, but I agree that most ESL trainers are oblivious to the fact that there is no future tense.

Naminan said...

Thank you for your explanation. I am an ESL teacher at Rice University and I have come across some students who don't believe me, at first, when I explain that there is no future tense, per se. It is really difficult to explain to some of the beginner students because they expect that there is something for past, present and future. I found that by the intermediate levels they seem to have forgotten that it was ever a big deal and the Modals chapter of the Fundamentals of English Grammar is pretty easy for them.

Anyway, I think that any serious ESL teacher should know about this if they took a serious grammar class in graduate school, like I had too. Among others, we used "The Grammar Book" by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman which, I think, does a nice job of explaining why the "future tense in English" is a misnomer.

IR_Reader said...

I hope you teach university level students. People who argue about the technicalities and semantics of metalanguage can do that to their heart's content in a place like that. I guarantee your little tirade would needlessly confuse a beginning students. You know, a lot of teachers want to argue the technicalities of linguistics because it makes then sound smarter (and probably yields better jobs), but we'll see whose students learn better. Try working with simplicity from the ground up (oops, did I end a sentence with preposition... or is it OK as an idiom? - hahahahaha - "From where is your problem?") How about you study English instead of teaching it?

Margarita said...

A great post! Thanl you very much for this :) I teach all sorts of students both at the university and at high school, adults and children. I think it is much easier for them if you tell them right away that English has no future tense as such but can express futurity in a number of ways. I do not see any reason to tell small kids something different, with the risk of it being wrong, when they are capable of understanding it! My experience shows that it does not confuse beginning students at all if explained correctly!

Warsaw Will said...

I'm a TEFL teacher and I've never really understood this argument. For a start we teach four future tenses, or forms, or aspects if you prefer: Simple, Continuous, Perfect and Perfect Continuous. But this argument only seems to refer to Future Simple, and to me would just confuse students, and I'm glad to say doesn't appear in any of the standard (British) course books we use.

It also looks at English as though it had no connection to any other languages. As I understand it the argument is twofold.

Firstly we do not have a single form, but four - 'will', 'going to', Present Continuous and Present Simple (for timetabled events). Yet both French and Spanish use 'going to' and the Present Simple for the future, but they don't seem to get their knickers in a twist about it.

Secondly 'will' is a modal, therefore it cannot be a tense (although this apparently doesn't apply to Future Continuous and Perfect). German also uses a modal but that doesn't stop them calling it the Future.

I'm sorry but in my opinion it's just mind games for Diploma courses, and helps ESL students not a jot. It's like the weird and wonderful diagrams they produce for understanding tenses with arrows going in all directions which leave me twice as confused as when I started.

Well you needed a dissenting voice! Oh, sorry, I've just seen IR Reader, my feelings precisely.

Kumaraditya Sarkar said...

What you said is quite true. But this should be to college and university level students. Elementary school students cannot understand that "grammar" is about form (tense) and "semantics" is about meaning (time) - they will end up in confusion. I think for everyday use, let there be three tenses. If someone wants to be a linguist / learn TG grammar - let him read about two tenses.

Brett Reynolds said...

Thanks for your comment, Kumaraditya. I think we often underestimate children. Many of us think that what we learned when we were young is the best for young people because it was hard for us to adapt to new ideas. When the new ideas are presented first, often there's no increase in confusion at all, and often there's a reduction since things are more coherent and there's no need to learn a new system later.

John Bald said...

This may be duplicated. The reasoning in this article is profoundly wrong. A tense is a systematic way of indicating time, and English has such systems. The attempt to separate tense from time is sophistry. Grammar is based on usage, and English usage has several forms of future tense.

John Bald said...

Another thought has occurred to me. There is a future perfect. Can we have a future perfect without a future? I can't see how this is possible. I'm still, though, for returning the idea of tense to its origin in time - the alternative is a tangent that could confuse people.

Brett Reynolds said...

Sorry, John. There's not future tense at all: no "future simple", not "future perfect", no "future progressive", no future anything. For more reading, see:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005471.html
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=897

Mike said...

Good article, but some of these comments are a bit scary... Ignorance is one thing, wilful ignorance is quite another. The idea that we should teach students things we know to be untrue because they're 'simpler' (which they're not) is absurd. Mind you, when a commenter reveals in their first line that they don't know the difference between tense, form and aspect, I suppose there's not much point reading further.