Hi All;

There was a recent thread that digressed a bit into incivility on the subject "Future Tense".


Some posters claimed that English had no future tense, and others were somewhat astonished by this.

I think both viewpoints are correct; it depends on the definition of "tense."

First of all, everyone (I hope) will agree that Latin has a future tense. I present this evidence:

FUTURE TENSE, Active voice
Latin uses two sets of endings to show future tense. These depend on the conjugation of the verb.
amo (amare)
Both drop the -re from the second pr. part to form the root.

amaBO I will love
amaBIS you will love
amaBIT he will love
amaBIMUS we will love
amaBITIS y’all will love
amaBUNT they will love

The Latin verb is inflected, so the verb itself, with no auxiliary, can convey not only the time frame, but also the number and subject.

Back to the future.

You see that there is a translation in English, but no inflections. So, if tense strictly equates to inflection of the verb, English has no such thing as "future tense."

On the other hand, in most every ESL course materials there will be a summary of verb forms such as this:

Note the Tense headings of Simple Present, Simple Past, Simple Future. I have used similar charts a lot in summarizing English tenses (oops, verb forms). It seems so logical and systematic! Learners could care less about Latin grammar, so books abuse the technicalities and just name the tenses sensibly and practically, to make learning easier.

If we post (outside of the LinguisticsForum) that English has no future, that would sound very strange, even absurd, to the majority of our audience.
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They who dare can only talk about the future in the will of God, in otherwards we know nothing about the future unless God told us in a prophetical way, However, we don't know our personal physical future.

So is future tense dangerous! yes, if, your claiming you know whats going to happen.

Oh Dolly! I love you sometimes, one day at a time sweet Jesus that's all im asking for now............

The headings of tenses are not perfect i think!
It certainly confuses people when linguists say that English has no future tense as they think they mean that English has no means of talking about the future. Linguists have dug themselves a huge hole by insisting that a word has a narrower meaning than that used by the general populace. When I was at school and learning French and Latin we had simple tenses and compound tenses; now linguists insist that only simple tenses are tenses. Linguists have a good reason for wanting to give a specific meaning to the word "tense" but they really ought to have made up a new word. They should certainly not come onto forums like this and tell people that English has no future tense.
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Woah woah woah!

@Forbes the 'no future tense' thing is an English teacher idea. Linguists know all languages have all tenses.

And I agree with your final statement. That's why I was so surprised by the insistence of such in the thread mentioned above. Emotion: big smile
I am not convinced it is language teachers who spread the idea that English has no future tense.

We can start off by saying that there was a time when "grammarians" tried to squeeze English grammar into a box labelled "Latin". Because Latin is not significantly different from English in its basic framework it did not fit too badly even if it needed a bit of banging in. There came a point when linguists realised that Latin grammar was quite useless to describe non-Indo-European languages and they began to wonder if it was appropriate to describe Germanic languages in terms of Latin grammar. That led them to examine English afresh and in its own terms. It was an exercise that needed to be done and much has been learned from it. However, to assume that because the shackles of Latin have been thrown off and that any new analysis is on that account "correct" is surely arrogant.

One of the problems is that the new generation of linguists, even if not all of them have not studied a non-Indo-European language, is aware that such languages have wonderful things like evidentiality markers, classifiers, ergativity and medio-passives. They started to look for them in English. Of course they found them because English can express all these things if it wants to, but they are not grammatical categories in the sense that they are "must do". It is of course impossible to describe any language "in its own terms" because you cannot begin to describe a language unless you have some grammatical concepts to begin with. Grammactical concepts do not arise ex nihilo, but from looking at languages. It is therefore a bit of a chicken and egg situation. But if you are going to throw off Latin as your model you do not want to be putting Quechua, Georgian or Basque in its place.

It is an unwise man who relies on etymology to define a word, but it is worth pointing out that the word "tense" ultimately derives from Latin tempus = "time". Latin, and indeed French, use the same word for "time" and "tense". This reflects the fact that Latin, French and English speakers feel that the main thing a form of a verb conveys is when something happens. When we pause and look at Latin, French and English verbs they do of course deal with aspect, mood etc, but taking all these things together, it is common practice to refer to verb forms as tenses. So, for a linguist to insist that English only has two tenses is rather like a physicist insisting that a wall is not solid - he will find it solid enough if he bangs his head against it.

The insistence that only simple forms of a verb can be tenses leads to some anomalies.

In English we say "he went", but have to say "he did not go" and "did he go?". Does this mean that there is no past tense if we are expressing negation or asking a question?

In French when speaking you use the passé composé but when writing the passé simple. Both function in exactly the same way. Is it helpful to describe only the later as a tense?

In Latin, the perfect active is one word, but the perfect passive two words. I think Cicero would have been surpised by the contention that there was no perfect passive tense in Latin.

I think it all has to come down to what your aims are.

If you want to describe a language then you have to decide your approach. Different approaches may be equally valid. In the end no language can be fully described.

If you are writing an instruction manual it has to be useful. Usefulness is more important than couching your manual to accord with current fashions in linguistics - your success will be judged by how well the users of the manual learn the language. Just as no description can ever be complete so no manual can ever be complete. There comes a point when learners are on their own.
I think a "tense" is just the "time" a verb refers to. What really makes a difference is: with or without any context?

1. If context matters in the definition of "tense", then every language has present, past, and future tenses (or at least I think so).

2. If context doesn't matter, then only verbs matter. In this case, if the verb can express future time without any context, then I guess you can talk about "future tense". A language without future tense (or any tenses), where context is necessary, would be like this:

Last year I kill man. Man die. Police look for me for many months. Yesterday police find me. I now in jail.

Does that sound like basic English sometimes used by Asian students? It might be because that's the way verbs are used in Chinese (no tenses, but I'm not sure).

What about English?

I will kill you. I will love you. I will get a degree.

Is context necessary? I think that out of context, "will + base form" tends to be seen as part of the future anyway, and since "will" is part of the verb (it's not an adjective, or an adverb -- what else could it be?), I think we can talk about "future tense" in English. It's not one inflected word: it's a verb that consists of two parts, but so what? If everyone just changed the spelling and started to write "willdo", "willkill", "willlove", "willget", would English suddenly start to have a future tense that it didn't have before?

That's why I think we could say that English has a "future tense", even though the verbal particle that forms the future tense is not attached to the base form of the verb.

But this is just my opinion.

It's also interesting to notice that if English has a future tense according to definition #2 (= context doesn't matter), than "will + base form" is the only kind of future tense it has. It seems the other ways to refer to the future always need a context.

Time, tense, aspect, mood, etc. are always mixed up in the ESL field anyway. But learners definitely don't need to know anything about them. Everyone can speak their native language perfectly without knowing how to distinguish time from tense, tense from aspect, or knowing anything like that.
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@Forbes and @Kooyeen, you've both hit on some very good points and rather than discuss those yet, let me ask you this instead:

What exactly is tense (kooyeen you're close)?

If you were to purely define tense by itself, not as some general idea, and not just as a synonym for time, how would you describe it? When you say something is present, past, or future tense what do you mean?

Before we say yay or nay on wehther English or any other language has a certain tense, let's see if we can come up with a common definition of what tense is in the first place. After all, if we aren't totally sure what it is, how do we know if it's got one?

I could think up some definitions of "tense" or find some by Googling and copy and paste them, but to do so would not advance my argument since it does not depend on what "tense" means, but rather on the use of word being restricted. Many people have an idea of what a word signifies even if they have never considered precisely what it may mean. If I were to meet one of my school contemporaries (one without a degree in linguistics!) we would both know what we meant by "tense" and what we mean by it is not what many linguists want it to mean.
KooyeenLast year I kill man. Man die. Police look for me for many months. Yesterday police find me. I now in jail.
Ah Kooyeen, This sounds like a script from an old Tarzan movie. Of course, Tarzan would have an honorable story, not a criminal one. He would also avoid the use of copula (at least in the present!) Me Tarzan, King of Jungle. Me strong and fast. You Jane. You vulnerable and beautiful.

Your point is well taken - that the essence of a time frame for a past, present or future context (relative to the speaker's "present moment") only needs time markers, either relative or absolute. In English, the present verb form can be "shifted" into the future (but not the past) with the use of time markers:

I leave tomorrow. The wedding is next Sunday.

The present is also used for a timeless context:

Ice feels cold.

Christmas is a holiday.

A language's verb forms can bundle all sorts of information about the action - when it happened, how often, duration, completeness, mood, subject, relationship to other actions, etc. Mastery of the subtlety of the verb forms is one of the things that distinguishes a fluent speaker of a language.
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