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Concourse 2

Talking about future time

If you have arrived here in expectation of encountering either the going to formulation (as in I am going to see the movie) or the present tense used for the future (as in, e.g., I am taking Mary to the cinema tomorrow) you will be disappointed.  Both those forms are discussed under present time because that is where they belong.

English uses a number of strategies to apply aspect to future time.  Unfortunately, it also employs a lot of modality and pseudo-modality so that will be considered here first before we get along to aspect.
Modality occurs primarily because the future is, by definition, uncertain.
If we are certain of something, present tenses are commonly used as in, for example, in answer to
    Where's John?
the response is:
    He's in his room.
then the speaker is demonstrating certainty about a current situation.
If, on the other hand, the response is:
    He'll be in his room.
then, although the speaker is expressing that she is almost certain of the truth of what she says, there is an implication that John may, in fact, not be in his room.  In fact, responses like these are very often softened with the addition of something like I expect.
The fact that will can express this near-but-not-absolute certainty explains much of its use as a modal verb to refer to the future.


will (and shall)

Will you marry me?

The simple auxiliary verb will causes serious problems for learners and some of them are traceable to the fact that the verb is polysemous and used in two main allied but different meanings in English.  Once they are distinguished, much becomes clearer.


a little history

The word will derives from the Old English wyllan which meant, among other things, wish, desire, be willing to.
It also meant be about to and it is probably thence we derive its use as a future time marker.
The past tense was wolde (now would), incidentally.
There are cognate words in most Germanic languages, e.g., wollen in German which means wish or want (to) and is not a future tense marker (that's werden, which also, confusingly, means become).  The first-person singular form of the verb in German is will.

The problems arise when learners assume (or, unforgivably, are told) it is only a future form marker in English whereas it is, in fact, commonly a signal of willingness or volition rather than futurity.  (A further small complication is that there is a transitive verb in English, to will, which means something like to bring about by exercise of willpower.)
Some examples may help.

Example Comment Use of will
Will you marry me? does not require the responder to speculate about future events.  The verb is not being used to denote future time at all.  It denotes something like Are you willing to ... and that's a very different thing.  The question is about the present not the future. volition
Are you going to marry me? is enquiring about current plans and that is not mostly about the future.  It is primarily about current intention. volition allied to futurity
Will she marry him? denotes either:
Do you think the future will contain her marrying him? (please speculate about the future)
Do you think she is willing to marry him? (please speculate about her present state of mind)
futurity or volition
What will he do if she won't marry him? Usually, we are told that the so-called first conditional only contains one instance of will.  That's correct when the verb is used with reference to future time.  However, in this case she won't marry him refers to volition not futurity so two instances are allowable.  Compare it to
What will he do if she doesn't marry him?
which clearly has reference to the future.

The two meanings are not always easily separable.  For example:


The problem in the middle lies with the intention of the speaker.  It may be a prediction about the future based on sound evidence, it may, less usually, be a spontaneous decision or it may, as is more common, be an expression of willingness or a commitment:

A: Can we talk about this? This refers to right now.
B: I can't now.  I'll talk to you tomorrow, if you like. And so does this.  The speaker is expressing a current inability and a current willingness.
A: OK.  I'll try to come in early.  Goodnight. And this.  The speaker is expressing a current willingness, or promising.
B: Goodnight.  We'll talk tomorrow. Now the speaker is referring the future per se and not willingness but certainty.

The distinction is important because the intrinsic meaning of an expression of willingness (which is a present reference) has to be separated from the extrinsic meaning of inevitability concerning future events (which is a proper future reference).
There is, rather obviously, some sense of reference to the future in something like I'll do the cooking this evening but the key here is to understand that the speaker is referring primarily to present volition (i.e., volunteering or committing) rather than the future event which may, or may not, actually occur.
Like this:

I'm on the train and I'll be in London by six. This expresses an inevitable, timetabled future.
If you will get that in the post, it will be there tomorrow. Two separate uses:
the first is a request and refers to what someone is prepared to do now
the second is a prediction about the efficiency of the postal delivery in the future
It'll be cold in Canada at this time of year. This is a simple prediction based on climatic knowledge and has nothing to do with anyone's wishes or disposition.  It is a true future form.
Note, however, that even in this use, the speaker can be referring to the present and stating a fact.  It is akin to hearing the telephone ring and stating That'll be your mother.  This is reference to now.

Incidentally, and slightly more technically, the distinction in meaning between the two central meanings of will can be understood as distinct forms of modality:

  • epistemic modality refers to the likelihood or otherwise of an event, state or proposition being true in fact.  For example:
        I'm sure he'll be very pleased to hear that
    The verb will carries very strong epistemic modality as can be see if we contrast
        He will have passed the examination
        He out to have passed the examination
    In the first case, it is not possible to insert but he didn't after the clause, in the second case, it is.
  • dynamic modality refers to ability or willingness on the part of the speaker.  For example:
        I'll tell her (if you like)

So, what's the problem?

The problem is that not distinguishing between the meanings of will results in error – teacher-induced error.  Most course materials (and hundreds of websites) assert that the use of will to express a disposition or promise to do something is a simple future form.  It is not.  It is about one's current (i.e., present) state of mind.  Worse, the admonition in many materials is to slide from the volitional use of the verb to a future form of will to an expression of current plans and the use of going to.

Take a simple and often-used telephone dialogue such as:

A: I don't think there's any wine in the house.
B: Isn't there?  Oh, I'll go and get some.

Students are asked to believe that the second speaker's statement refers to the future and is an example of a spontaneous decision.  It doesn't – it refers to the speaker's current willingness or a promise to do something.  It may result in a future action but that is not the point at all.
If the conversation develops like this:

A: Don't bother, I'll get some on the way home.
B: Will you have time?

Then students realise that the future isn't going to happen.  It wasn't a future use, anyway.
They are now faced with two completely different uses of will.  The first expresses volunteering (now) and the second is a question that really is about the future.  And it gets worse if the dialogue goes on something like:

A: Yes, no problem.  I'm going to leave a bit early so I'll be there before they shut.
B: Fine.  I expect John'll bring a bottle, too.

in which we now have an expression of a present plan, a prediction about travel times and another prediction about the future based on the speaker's knowledge of John's character and habits.

It is little wonder that learners get confused if the uses and meanings are jumbled up like this.


shall is obsolete, right?

A further source of teacher-induced error is the assumption that it is not necessary to deal with shall at all because will has taken over and the verb has fallen / is falling into disuse.  That's not a bad rule of thumb but it is worth noticing some issues.

derivation and meaning
the verb shall is derived from a different source from will.  The base sense is actually connected to the idea of obligation and cognate verbs in other languages retain the sense of shall as should or ought to.  Compare sollen in German, for example.  The use to speak about the future is comparatively recent and comparatively rare.
the verb shall displays the same polysemy as will and can carry the sense of pure prediction (e.g., I shall be in New York at 8 if the plane's on time) and volition (Shall I help you with that?).  The use in questions, which is still quite common, is almost always to do with disposition, readiness or willingness and carries no future predictive sense:
Where shall we go?  (= Where do we want [now] to go [later]?)
I shan't! (= I refuse [now])
Where shall I put this? (= Where should I [now] put this?)
the verb retains its sense of obligation in often legalese statements like The property owner shall ensure ... etc. and also in They shan't talk to me like that.  In this sense, the verb usually has nothing to do with the future.  It expresses obligation and obligation routinely refers to both present and future time.  Compare, e.g., We mustn't be late, which can refer to present time or the future depending on context.
Note the formal use for all persons of shall in, e.g., You shall not interrupt, They shall not pass etc.


alternative modals

There are separate guides on this site to all the modals and semi-modals in English so this is not a place to repeat what's said there.
We use a range of modals to replace will but only when the use really is about the future.  We do not replace the use of will to express volition, willingness or promises with other modal verbs:

I'll be in London by six. Could be replaced with, e.g.
I may be in London by six.
I might be in London by six.
I should be in London by six.
I ought to be in London by six.
because the sense is of a more-or-less certain future.
However, as was stated above, the verb will carries much stronger epistemic modality (i.e., certainty) than the other modal verbs do.
I'll buy some wine, if you like. Because this is the use of will to express willingness, we can't have:
*I may buy some wine, if you like
*I might buy some wine, if you like.
*I should buy some wine, if you like.
*I ought to buy some wine, if you like.

This is more evidence that we should keep the meanings quite separate when we are teaching.  Not to do so will confuse and bewilder.

one day

hope and expectation

When will is used to refer to the future rather than to volition, it is frequently preceded by a verb or phrase denoting some kind of hope or expectation, for example,

  • I expect she'll be in trouble.
  • I hope I'll get a rise.
  • I imagine he'll be tired.
  • I'm certain he'll be first.
  • It's a given fact that he'll be late.
  • There's a strong possibility she'll get lost.

These are all indicators that the verb is really being used to refer to future time and not to volition.  In fact, the situation may be and often is wholly outside the control of the speaker.

These introductory expressions always refer to the speaker's view of the likelihood of the future event or state.  If will concerns volition or making promises (much the same thing), the expressions change the sense to pure futurity:

Comment on the present Volition, promises and willingness Future reference and prediction
You are late again! I'm sorry, it won't happen again. I'm sorry, I'm sure it won't happen again.
We've run out of sugar. I'll borrow some from next door. *?I hope I'll borrow some from next door.

Note that in the second exchange, the reference to prediction sounds at best very strange, at worst wrong, because the verb is being used to express willingness and cannot easily be dragooned into a future reference.


Summary and classroom issues

This matters in the classroom.


If learners are encouraged to believe that will is merely a future marker, do not be surprised if they produce errors and sound certain or tentative about the future rather than willing to do something.  There is a clear difference between:
    I'm sure it won't happen again.
which refers to the future
    I'm sorry, it won't happen again.
which refers to a promise or undertaking
and between
    I ought to be there at six.
which can refer to an obligation (a duty to be there) or an unsure expectation concerning the future,
    I'll be there at six.  Promise.
which refers to a promise or undertaking.



Now that we have dispensed with will to express present volition, we can focus on its use for the future in terms of adding aspect.
(You will note that in none of what follows does will express volition and that is another reason for keeping the concepts separate.)



The next train arrives in 3 minutes

Using a simple form like this to refer to the future is, slightly misleadingly, called the 'timetabled' future.  It might be better described as the certain future because it is closely allied to the use of a simple present tense to refer to predictable facts.
Of course, that includes timetables but it also covers events that we are sure of because they are tied to other ever-present background events.  For example:

  • Look busy, the boss arrives in a minute
    (i.e., we are talking about the future but basing the certainty on habitual background behaviour)
  • I arrive at around 6 if all's well
    (i.e., this is my future but under the control of someone else's timetable.  Compare it to
        I'm driving up and will get to you around 6
    in which the simple use is not possible so we cannot have
        *I'm driving up and get to you around 6
    because it is a personal prediction not tied to external timetables.)

In both cases above, the simple tense can be replaced with a will formulation, either in simple or progressive aspects (will arrive / will be arriving) with no change in meaning.  No other modal, except the first-person shall, can be used without changing the meaning.  The reverse does not apply: we cannot always insert a simple tense form instead of a formulation with will / shall.


Progressive, continuous, durative, iterative and habitual aspects in the future

He will be walking in the mountains
and he will enjoy the solitude

The progressive aspect is not the same as the continuous.

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action will be in progress She will be having dinner around now so don't call till 8
the aspect is often used to avoid interruption
I want to say that an action will be in progress discontinuously She will be giving a series of lectures
but not all the time
I want to say that a state will exist He'll be feeling quite disappointed continuous
He'll feel quite disappointed
I want to say that a state of mind will exist She'll think you're mad
but not forever
I want to say that an action will become a routine I'll be travelling by train until the car's fixed
but then I won't
I'll travel by train until the car's fixed
less common
I want to say that an action may not be happening continuously but will repeat They'll be sending money every week
but not all the time
They'll send money every week
not only once
I want to say something will become a habit I'll take all my holiday in France in future
it will be an unbroken habit
I'll be taking all my holidays in France in future
it will be an unbroken habit
  1. Simple forms with certain types of verbal processes are still continuous in aspect.  This is the effect of stative and dynamic use and is not paralleled in many languages.
    1. mental processes such as enjoy, appreciate, love, feel, know, understand
    2. projecting processes such as hope, expect, imagine, suspect
    3. verbal processes such as say, aver, assert, describe
  2. Both the simple and complex forms of the tense can be used for iterative, durative and habitual aspects but not for progressive or continuous aspects unless the verb denotes one of the processes mentioned in point 1.
    We can say
        He'll go to the office at nine every day
        He'll take the train for a month instead of the bus
    but not
        *He will have lunch so don't phone now (progressive)


Perfect aspect in the future

They will have been married
for 50 years next week

The perfect, as it always does, refers one time to another.  It is a relational not an absolute time reference.

The future perfect allows people to express how a future will look from a viewpoint later in the future.  Time lines are a helpful way to explain:
future perfect

For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a future event will continue I will have worked on it for hours
and will continue to do so
I want to say that a finished future event will result in a change to the next event He will have arrived by then
so we'll be able to start
I want to say that a future event (recent or not) will result in a future state I will have spent all my money
so I'll be broke

perfect +

We can combine the perfect aspect with a continuous, progressive, iterative, habitual or durative aspect and for this purpose, we will choose a different form.  Notice that all the following retain the sense of the perfect aspect, i.e., the relation of the future to a previous future but have an additional aspect grafted on to them.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a previous future state will remain a current future state I will have been living there for over 10 years
and I intend to continue
perfect + continuous
I want to say that a future ongoing action will still be still occurring I will have been playing in the band for over a year
and will still play in the band
perfect + progressive
I want to say that a future series of events will go on They will have been coming here every Sunday for years by then
and will go on doing that
perfect + iterative
I want to say that a future routine will go on I will have been visiting France for over 20 years
and it will remain my habit to do so
perfect + habitual
I want to say that a future, long-lasting action will continue I will have been sitting here for most of the day
and will continue to do so thereafter
perfect + durative

Note that speakers will often choose a prepositional phrase (circumstance, if you prefer) introduced by by in both the perfect forms.

Take a short test to see if you can match future aspect to meaning.

the tenses index