Looking to the future… why is there no future tense in English?
As in most languages, we can talk about the future in English, but when it comes to teaching the language we use to communicate about the future, things are not as simple as they may seem. Unlike the past and the present, we have a range of different forms to talk about the future, so can we say that English has a true future tense?
To answer this question, we need to think about what a tense actually is. A good definition is: a change in the structure of a verb which changes its meaning to communicate that it happens at a specific time. By this definition, we can identify the -ed ending on a verb as communicating a past action (the past simple tense), or the -s ending communicating a regular or repeated action happening around the present (the present simple tense).
Reason 1: There is no change in English future verbs
However, when we come to the future, there is no specific change that we can make to a verb’s structure to communicate the future. We need to use another set of tools (for example, ‘will’ or ‘be going to’) to do this job. This is one reason why we cannot say that there is a true future tense in English.
If we compare this to another language - say, French, we can see that the future tense exists: In French, the verb ‘to run’ is ‘courrir’, and its future form (depending on the person) is ‘courrai’, ‘courra’, ‘courrons’, etc. The -ai, -a and -ons endings on these verbs show that there is a future tense at work on these verbs, something which is not possible in English. The English equivalent of this is the addition of another structure, as in ‘I will run’ or ‘I’m going to run’. In both of these cases, the verb itself (run) is an infinitive verb, with no structural change.
Reason 2: We talk about the future in many different ways
Despite what many course books teach, English actually has a range of different ways of talking about different kinds of future: future forms. To think about future forms, we need to understand the difference between the form of a verb and the meaning being communicated. As language educators, it is essential to clarify the difference between form and meaning both for our own awareness of language, and to help students to understand it.
Thinking about the following examples, we can use a range of present tenses and modal auxiliaries to talk about the future more specifically than would be possible using a single future tense.
Present tenses with future meaning
An arrangement in the future: I’m running with Pete tomorrow morning
An intention in the future: I’m going to run later on
An action happening before another action in the future: I’ll stop and stretch when I’ve run 5 kilometres
Modals to talk about the future
A possibility in the future: I might run further tomorrow
Advice for the future: You should run earlier tomorrow - it’s going to rain in the morning
A future suggestion: We could run together next week
A conditional future: I’ll run a marathon if I have the time to train
…and many more. Listening to English as it is spoken in movies, on TV and in conversation, the majority of future forms do not include the usual ‘will’ and ‘be going to’ forms that are taught to students, as they enable a much wider range of functions, which are useful for talking about the future.
Isn’t it easier to call the future a tense?
Although there are future forms in English which seem similar to simple, continuous and perfect tenses (I will run, I will be running and I will have run), limiting students to these forms (plus ‘going to’), as many textbooks do, does not take into account the full range of future meanings that are possible in English. Labelling these as ‘future tenses’ can make it more difficult for students to accept that present tenses can have future meaning, or that other forms can be used to express the future.
Teaching future forms functionally by the type of meaning they communicate, and including the range of present and modal forms we can use to do the job, opens up a range of choices for students in how they talk about the future, and leads to a better understanding of this complex area of language.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.