Sunday, September 30, 2007

If they will only listen

Believe me, English really doesn't have a future tense. Some may think this is simply a labeling preference, but it goes beyond that. The belief that English has a future tense gets people all twisted up in ad hoc explanatory knots that vanish once you accept a future-tenseless English into your heart.

Take, for instance, this question, which recently showed up on the ETJ list.

I was asked if the sentence "if he's not going to change his mind
there is no use talking to him" was correct.
I said yes.
"But you can't use if with the future tense" came the reply
"quite right" said I.
"so why is this ok?"

In case you're asking where these two came up with this "rule", here are a couple of versions for you. The first one is from an TESL site called

Like all future forms, the Simple Future cannot be used in clauses beginning with time expressions such as: when, while, before, after, by the time, as soon as, if, unless, etc. Instead of Simple Future, Simple Present is used.

And here's another from Wikipedia (now changed):

Future tense forms are not used in the condition clause (protasis) in English: *If it will rain this afternoon, …

If you subscribe to the future-tense school of English grammar, it is completely natural to look for regularities in how such a tense would be realised. This is what we're seeing above. The people who are promulgating these "rules" are looking at a specific instance in which it seems to be true (e.g., *if it will rain this afternoon) and generalising from there.

But this disallows perfectly fine sentences such as "if you'll excuse me, I've got a bus to catch" or even "If you'll be using a wheelbarrow frequently, then make risers low". It also catches instances such as the one that initiated the question above.

On the other hand, it ignores other problems such as "it could rain tonight" becoming "if it could rain tonight...", or "that may be the right one" becoming "if that may be the right one", or even "he might have been there" as "if he might have been there".

A belief in the future tense does this because it leads people to look for regularities in some hodge podge notion of the future tense where there are none to be found rather than within the system of modal auxiliaries where they actually exist.

In fact, the problem only resides with certain modals (mainly 'will', 'may', 'might', and 'could') when they are used to express probability (i.e., epistemic uses). Thus, "it could rain tomorrow" doesn't work as *"if it could rain tomorrow", but "you could help me tomorrow, couldn't you" easily becomes "if you could help me tomorrow" because 'could' here is denoting ability (or willingness, i.e., it is deontic) rather than probability. Note that this also holds true for present and past time as well as future time.


alienvoord said...

Very interesting. Do we have a similar confusion with the subjunctive? We seem to lump very different forms and environments together - for instance the verbs used in that-clauses, and in counterfactual if-clauses - and we call them all the "subjunctive."

Brett said...

Indeed, but it's not entirely analogous. The various "future tense" forms developed independently and have no real historical relationship. My understanding of the subjunctive is that we used to have a full system of past and present subjunctive, but only 'were' remains from the past (don't quote me on this). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls the were in "if I were a bird" an irrealis form and reserves "subjunctive" for verbs like go in "I think it best that he go."

The Ridger, FCD said...

I think the real problem with this "subjunctive" (the "were") is that only the verb "be" has more than one past tense form. So it's only in "be" phrases that you see this "plural past tense" form used for irrealis. You actually are seeing the same thing with "if he ran" but the only time anyone notices it is with "he were".

Brett said...

But with 'be' you have a choice between two forms, at least for first and third person. You can use 'was' or 'were'. That suggests to me that one is simply the past tense used to signify modal remoteness, while the other is a different form. Historically, it was the subjunctive, but when this is all that's left, I don't think it makes sense to call it that anymore.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I agree. I wasn't clear, I guess. I meant that the "If he ran fast" which is the same usage as "If he were king" simply doesn't look the same to people, so they think they need some new category. And for some reason, "subjunctive" is the name they picked for "if he were" or "were he to go" for that matter (no "if" needed), and then they get confused by the true subjunctive "I think it best that he run along now".

The problem comes from trying to use the names of one language's forms for another language's that don't match up properly.

CEJ said...

Of course in a morphological sense, English only has two tenses. So the boldest statement isn't simply that English has no (morphological) future tense. Saying that, though, doesn't really uncomplicate matters as to how English speakers as a total group make well-formed statements about the future. See this discussion:

>>diachronic, synchronic and cross-linguistic arguments against the popular view that English does not have a Future Tense are advanced by Dahl
(1985:105ff), Comrie (1989:53-6), Matthiesen (1983:407-11), Lyons
(1977:815ff) and Declerck (1991:10-13). These authors point out that the
English Future Tense (i.e. will/(shall)+V) has indeed developed out of
modal forms (like most if not all Indo-European Future Tenses). However,
there are some compelling arguments for the claim that the will/shall+V
construction in modern English is first and foremost a tense expressing
future time reference and which has secondary modal uses or overtones,
rather than the other way around (cf. Dahl 1985; Comrie 1989). Statements
about future situations are of necessity non-actual and non-factual and,
hence, modal in nature (though the reverse is of course not necessarily
true). This need not imply, however, that the will/shall+V group primarily
expresses modality.
The status of the English Future as a proper tense category has further
often been questioned on the basis of the fact that it is but one of
several constructions that can be used for future time reference; also the
Present Tense, Present Progressive, and the periphrastic Be+going+Vinf
construction can be used to this end. To this argument, however, the
following counter-arguments can be adduced (cf. also Declerck 1991:11-13):

(a) the same argument could equally be applied to, say, the
inflectional Futur Simple of French. French, too, uses the Present Tense
and a periphrastic construction with "aller" to indicate futurity.
However, the status of the Futur Simple as a proper tense category is
hardly ever questioned.
(b) will+V is the only form that refers to future time and which is
compatible with all verb types. Particularly stative verbs do not allow
for the alternative categories (cf. "*Tomorrow I know/*am knowing/??am
going to know why he did it").
(c) as opposed to the Present and Present Progressive, the Future Tense
is capable of referring to future time in and by itself. In contrast, the
Present and Present Progressive require future time adverbials or
contextual support to express future reference. Present tense clauses,
when uttered in isolation, yield a present-time reading.
(d) the Simple Future is the category which most readily combines with
a progressive infinitive to express future tense plus progressive aspect
(cf. "I will be swimming" vs. "*I am swimming"), though the combination
with the Be+going+Vinf form seems acceptable too ("?This time tomorrow I am
going to be lying in the sun").

Given the above, it seems legitimate to consider the will/shall+V as the
unmarked means of expressing future time in English and, hence, as a
proper Future tense form.

PS. The use of shall+V is now almost obsolete, being restricted to a few
(British?) dialects and registers.


Comrie, B. 1989. On identifying future tenses, in Abraham, W. & Janssen,
T. (eds.), Tempus - Aspekt - Modus: die lexikalischen und grammatischen
=46ormen in den Germanischen Sprachen, T=FCbingen: Niemeyer, 51-63.

Dahl, =D6. 1985. Tense and Aspect Systems., Oxford: Oxford University Pres=

Declerck, R. 1991. Tense in English: its structure and use in discourse,
London: Routledge.

Matthiesen, C. 1983. Choosing primary tense in English, Studies in
Language, 7, 369-429.

Lyons, J. 1977. Semantics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research
Department of Germanic Languages

Faraway said...

"If you'll be using a wheelbarrow frequently, then make risers low"
Could you spare a minute to explain to a foreign EL teacher, why 'will' can be used in this particular sentence? (it was the only example in your post that puzzled me).

Matt_M said...

Re: Faraway's question:

To explain why "If you'll be using a wheelbarrow frequently, then make risers low" makes sense, I think we need to look at the time sequence involved here. A typical conditional sentence with future reference might look like this:

"If I see him tommorrow, I'll tell him about the letter."

Here both clauses refer to some future time, but we can also note that the action in the main clause (with 'will') is to occur after the action in the if-clause.

This time sequence is the normal one, I think. In "If you'll be using a wheelbarrow frequently, then make risers low", however, the normal time sequence is reversed: the action indicated by the main clause (making risers low) is to occur before the action in the if-clause.

This (rather unusual) reversal of the normal time sequence seems to be the reason for allowing 'will' in the if-clause. Compare "If you're planning to use a wheelbarrow frequently, then make risers low", which has a similar meaning, but doesn't break the 'prohibition' on using 'will' after 'if'.

Unknown said...

A group from Lithuania once won the Eurovision song contest (traditionally in English) singing a song where "If my star will fall Or disappeared at all I will follow my star till the end of my days". What's your opinion, was the margin for breaking school rules overrun in that case?)

Brett said...

Hi, Serge. That usage seems ungrammatical to me.