Does English have a future tense?
Many grammar resources explain English with past, present and future tenses. These resources say that the English “future tense” is formed with will. Here is some other information about how speakers use will. Does will really mean future?
Many people consider will to be the present form (its past form is would), and like all present forms, it can be used to talk about the present or future. The “present tenses” (such as the present simple and present progressive) are also used when talking about the present or future (more on this below).
The term ‘future tenses’ is used because these forms are often used when talking about the future. However, the so called ‘future simple’, ‘future perfect’ and ‘future progressive’, can all be used to talk about the present too.
He’s been working really hard, so he’ll be hungry.
(future simple: description in the present)
My daughter is very helpful. She‘ll always pick up garbage and put it in the trash.
(future simple: general statement referring to what she does—generally in the present-future, as well as the past)
They will have arrived by now.
(future perfect: result of action in the present)
She’ll be sleeping now.
(future progressive: unfinished action in the present)
In English, we often use more than one verb, for example: “They will have eaten.” has three verbs: will, have and eaten.
The first verb is either in the present form or past form.
If we change will to would, we can use the same words to talk about the past instead.
He’d been working really hard, so we thought he would be hungry.
When I was a child, I was very helpful. I‘d always pick up garbage and put it in the trash.
We got there late, so we thought that they would have arrived by then.
I knew she’d be sleeping, but I called her anyway.
In the examples above we can see that will can be changed to the past form to talk about the past instead of the present like any other verb. So, we can’t honestly say that will has a special “future meaning”.
If will can be used when talking about the present, how can we say that will is a “future tense marker”, or that English even has a future tense?
When we talk about the future, we don’t have to use a future tense marker (will or be going to), and it’s often better not to!
We can simplify the idea of past, present and future into three days: yesterday, today (now) and tomorrow. When we ask someone about these days we usually ask in the following way:
What did you do yesterday?
What are you doing (now)?
What are you doing tomorrow?
Some people may say that the future question is ‘What will you do tomorrow?’ or ‘What are you going to do tomorrow?’ (considering will and be going to as future tense markers). These sentences are grammatically correct and useful, but they are NOT asking about the near future in the most common way.
I’ve asked many English speakers which conversation they think is more natural:
- A: What are you doing tomorrow?
B: Nothing, why?
A: We’re having a barbecue. Do you want to come?
- A: What will you do tomorrow?
B: Nothing, why?
A: We’ll have a barbecue. Do you want to come?
Every highly proficient English speaker I have spoken to agrees that (1) is more natural. But some learners I have spoken to say that (2) is better, or are unsure. This is no surprise because many English Language Teaching (ELT) resources teach will as the “simple future”. This always seemed strange to me because when I think about talking simply about the future, I think that I typically use am/are/is -ing (the present progressive/continuous) as in conversation (1) above.
I decided to look into this further.
According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), the British National Corpus (BNC), the News On Web Corpus (NOW), the Corpus of American Soap Operas (SOAP) and Google books, the most common way is ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’
As we can see above, in questions about tomorrow, will doesn’t seem to be very common. 1
However, when making statements about tomorrow, will seems to be the most common (COCA). 2
To understand why this happens, think about why we ask a question or make a statement. But first, let’s think about what will really means.
Will is often used when making a decision or prediction (a lot of grammar resources tell us this rule).
When we make a decision, we think about the options we have, understand what is possible, and we choose what we want. When we make a prediction, we have to consider the possibilities, and choose what we think is the most likely.
Here’s another use of will – to give an order. For example: “You will apologize at once!” This is less common, so many resources leave it out. But when we think about will in terms of options and possibilities, we can see that the speaker is considering someone else’s options and choosing for them! This use fits in with the core meaning of will.
We use will when we consider options or possibilities and a choice is made.
Notice that this explanation fits with the previous examples too, when will is used for the present. Will adds meaning.
|With will||Without will|
|He’s been working really hard, so he’ll be hungry. (considering possibilities and saying what I think– is he hungry or not?)||He’s been working really hard, so he is hungry. (a fact – he is hungry. He said so and there is a reason.)|
|My daughter is very helpful. She‘ll always pick up garbage and put it in the trash. (She has the option of not picking it up. Adding will emphasizes that she decides to do it.)||My daughter is very helpful. She always picks up garbage and put it in the trash. (This is simply what she does.)|
|They will have arrived by now. (I consider the possibilities and predict that they have arrived.)||They have arrived. (a fact – maybe they told me, maybe I can see them.)|
|She’ll be sleeping now. (I consider the possibilities and predict that she is sleeping. I don’t know for sure. It is possible that she is awake.)||She is sleeping now. (a fact – maybe someone told me, maybe I can see her.)|
Here’s another time when we can use will that is often a surprise: will can be used in factual statements.
Water will boil at a lower temperature at a higher altitude.
Many students don’t believe that this is correct English. Google it; there are tens of thousands of results. The people using this sentence are typically scientists – highly educated and intelligent people. And it fits the core meaning of will.
Water boils at 100°C. (a general fact)
Water boils at a lower temperature at a higher altitude. (another general fact)
Water will boil at a lower temperature at a higher altitude. (Will isn’t needed here. Adding will helps the reader consider another possibility (changing the altitude) and choose to accept this information that may go against what they thought before)
And although “water boils at” is much more common, according to Google Books Ngram Viewer, “water will boil at” is more common than “what will you do tomorrow”!
We ask a question to obtain information. We often don’t want the listener to consider possibilities, we just want them to tell us.
In questions when we naturally use will there are possibilities, and the person replying states their choice (often a decision or prediction):
What will you have?
What will the weather be like tomorrow?
Where will you be in ten years’ time?
On the other hand, when we make a statement about the future, we often consider future possibilities, but we don’t have to. So, will is very common, but other structures are also often used.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” (We consider when we’ll see each other next.)
“They’re getting married on Saturday.” (not considering possibilities and simply saying what is happening – an unfinished action)
Here is an example of “will you do tomorrow” from COCA, we can see why the speaker is using will in this case:
Which action step will you do tomorrow? (Add it to your to-do list now.)
(The writer is asking the reader to consider options and make a choice)
Ok, so I don’t think it is right to say “the future tense is formed with will” or “will is a future tense marker”. To make things clear for beginners, we can say “will is often used when making decisions about the future”, and practice situations where they have to make decisions. We can also look at simple predictions, for example the weather. This helps them become familiar with how will is used, and the explanation is presented accurately so it can be expanded upon into other uses involving options and possibilities. When asking them about the near future, practice structures such as “What are you doing tomorrow?” The first step is to get used to how sentences are typically used.
However, once your level improves, your goals change. Do you want say a few memorised patterns and phrases for specific situations, or do you want to communicate your thoughts?
I think that communicating is more than simply reproducing language from memory, it involves creative expression. You need to think about the meaning of your words and how a listener will interpret them. By thinking about the basic meaning of will and how it can be applied to different situations, you get a better sense of how it works, can use it in a wider range of situations and even understand the nuance of the many sentence patterns we use when we talk about the future in English.
What do you think? Does English have a future tense?
1 Search terms in each corpus: “what are you doing tomorrow”, “what will you do tomorrow”, “what are you going to do tomorrow”, “what do you do tomorrow”, “what will you be doing tomorrow”, and “what’ll you do tomorrow” (0 results). Data in COCA was limited so a range of corpora have been queried.
2 Will includes both will and ‘ll. Results with other forms of be have been subtracted (was, were and be). The common expression “I’ll see you tomorrow” (645) and “I’ll call you tomorrow” (62) have been subtracted. Search terms are as follows:
|will _vv* tomorrow|
|_vb* _v?g* tomorrow|
|_vb* going to _vv* tomorrow|
|‘ll _vv* tomorrow|
|will _vv* * tomorrow|
|_vb* _v?g* * tomorrow|
|_vb* going to _vv* * tomorrow|
|‘ll _vv* * tomorrow|