February 15, 2007

In (the) future

Included in an example sentence on the midterm I set this week for my class was a (non-crucial) use of the phrase in future. My teaching assistants queried this. It didn't look right to them: singular count nouns are not generally found heading anarthrous NPs, and future seems to be a count noun: We can talk of alternative futures, and we say The future looks rosy, not *Future looks rosy, because it is obligatory to have a determiner (such as the definite article). And a phrase like in the distance (meaning "visible far away") cannot lose its definite article: *in distance is not an alternative form of it. You can't say *in past, either. So was my use of in future (my TAs ventured this suggestion very nervously) an error that I had made, perhaps?

The answer seems to be that it's a (statistical) dialect difference. In future is familiar as an adjunct in British English, and simply means "in the future". But a quick check of the 44,000,000 words of the Wall Street Journal corpus revealed only 3 occurrences of "in future" followed by a comma or period but over 1,100 of "in the future" in that context. That's three orders of magnitude difference in raw hits [earlier I said just two; that was a braino]. It looks like Americans just don't us in future the way British speakers do. I didn't know that. Every day I live, I learn a little.

This is the hardest kind of thing to learn: a phrase that's familiar to me from my upbringing in Britain but not quite grammatical for American speakers around me is invisible to me (since in the future is also perfectly grammatical in British). To learn that something does not sound right to most Americans, though they sort of understand it, demands what acquisition specialists call negative evidence: I need an occasion when someone is moved to actually correct my usage. That doesn't happen much to professors of linguistics. But it's what the proofreading of the midterm happened to provide. Otherwise I might never have known.

Of the three Wall Street Journal occurrences, one looks to me like a typo:

"I don't know when the lines cross, but it's not too far in future." [/wsj/w9_11]

That is not grammatical even in British English (it would need "the"). So we actually have just two uses of in future followed by a punctuation mark in the corpus, namely these:

But this windfall is a sure sign that capital-gains receipts will be lower in future. [w7_123]

"I think it's a good idea because, in future, I may be able to buy and sell stocks," a warehouse supervisor told them. [w9_12]

The fact that they are there (and the contexts suggest that they both reflect usage by Americans) tells us that (as usual) this is not a matter of in future being totally ungrammatical in American English; it's just extremely rare compared to in the future. And in British English, I conjecture (but have not yet verified), that frequency difference does not obtain.

Update: Steve Jones estimates that the British National Corpus has about 1200 hits for in future as an adjunct and 2560 for in the future: much closer to being equitable. But in addition, he and a whole lot of other people have pointed out a subtle meaning difference that I hadn't noticed: in future in British English means "from now on", while in the future means "at some future point in time (perhaps very remote)". So, for example, under the normal reading, Human beings will live on the moon in future (in British English) is false: there are no humans living on the moon today, and it will be the same tomorrow and every day for many years to come. But Human beings will live on the moon in the future might well be true.

And to cite another example, In future I'll do the cooking commits me to cooking our meals from now on, whereas In the future I'll do the cooking says only that some day I'll take over.

Notice, this means what I said above about the synonymy of the two phrases is wrong. It's an empirical business, this study of language. We linguists can be wrong about things, and evidence can be used to show it when we are.

Thanks to the many people who wrote to me saying this or related things: Derry Earnshaw, Bryan Erickson, Jeremy Fitzhardinge, Melissa K. Fox, Ray Girvan, Peter Hendriks, Daniel Ezra Johnson, Stephen Jones, Jonathan Lundell, Mark Paris, Paul Quirk, Mark J. Reed, Lanja Samsdottir, Jeffrey Shallit, plus anyone else who wrote after midnight on February 15th.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 15, 2007 04:30 PM