Verb Time and Tense Correlation – Future

June 17th, 20124:16 pm

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Verb Time and Tense Correlation – Future

Future

In terms of the analysis of tense presented so far, it might seem straight­forward to define future tense as locating a situation at a time Subsequent to the present moment. One would then be able to elaborate on this, in particu­lar demonstrating that any deduction that the situation in question does not hold at the present moment is at best an implicature, rather than part of the meaning of the future tense. Thus Sandra will be making a cake when we leave for the airport in ten minutes does not exclude the possibility that she may already have started making the cake.

The English expression of future time reference will derives diachronically from modal expressions. However, this diachronic relation says noth­ing of the synchronic status of this form.

Traditional grammar usually presents English as having a future tense, namely the form using the auxiliary will (for some speakers, also shall) and the Infinitive of a notional verb, as in Linda will go to London tomorrow. There are two directions in which one could object to this analysis. First, the auxiliary will has a number of other uses in addition to the expression of future time reference, in particular modal uses which do not necessarily have future time reference: in particular, will can be used to indicate volition with present time reference (he won’t listen to me). From the other direction, there are many instances of future time reference where it is not necessary to use the auxiliary will, but rather the present tense suffices, as in the plane departs at three о ‘clock tomorrow morning. Thus future time reference is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the use of will in English.

However, it is hardly possible to claim that the present tense is freely used to express future events. It is known that the present tense is quite re­stricted in its use to denote events of future time location. In main clauses, for example, there is a heavy constraint on the use of the present tense with future time reference, namely that the situation referred to must be one that is scheduled. In our example above, the plane departs at three о ‘clock to­morrow morning, use of the present tense is justified because the situation referred to is indeed one that is scheduled. However, the sentence it rains tomorrow is decidedly odd. The reason why the sentence is unacceptable is that it requires an interpretation under which the occurrence of rain tomor­row is scheduled, and our knowledge of the world as it is today indicates that rain is not schedulable in this way. The sentence would, however, be acceptable, if one imagined a context where rain is schedulable, i.e. if God is talking, or if advances in meteorology made it possible for humans to schedule rain. This suggests that, in accounting for the use of the construc­tion with will, it will be necessary to make explicit separate reference to scheduling and to future time reference.

In some subordinate clauses, in particular in temporal and conditional clauses, the auxiliary will with future time reference is normally excluded even in instances where in main clauses will would-be required because of the absence of scheduling. Thus, alongside it will rain tomorrow, we have if it *will rain/rains tomorrow, we will go for a walk. In conditional clauses, will with modal meaning is permitted, e.g. if he won’t wash up after dinner, I won’t cook breakfast tomorrow morning. Thus, uses of will with future time reference are grammatically distinct from modal uses of will in such subor­dinate clauses, so that again the grammar will have to refer directly to the feature of future time reference. Some scholars believe that such examples suggest that English does have a separate grammatical category of future time reference, i.e. a future tense.

English has constructions with (as part of their meaning) immediate future time reference, but without it being clear that these constructions should be analyzed as grammaticalization of time reference. For instance, the constructions to be about to and to be on the point of contain immedi­ate future time reference, as in John is about to jump off the cliff. However, immediate future time reference does not exhaust the meaning of this con­struction, which differs from the future not only in range of time reference but also in that it expresses a present propensity to a future situation that may, however, be blocked by intervening factors. Thus John will jump off the cliff is untrue if John does not, in fact, jump off the cliff, while John is about to jump off the cliff is still true if someone rushes over and prevents him from doing so. For the relevance of an immediate future cut-off point in languages which otherwise lack distinctions of temporal distance in the future, one might compare the use of the past for immediate future events in Ukrainian я пішов “I’m off, literally “I left”; these forms, however, are idiomatic rather than grammaticalized.

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