March 18, 2008

The Lord which was and is

On Palm Sunday evening Barbara and I were in the early 17th-century Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh to hear the Mozart arrangement of Handel's Messiah performed by the Edinburgh Bach Society Choir accompanied by the Sinfonia orchestra. A spectacular performance (with linguist Bob Ladd among the tenors, incidentally). We arrived early (not early enough; the place was packed half an hour before tune-up). We looked around at the fine old church. And syntax, of course, is everywhere: at the altar end behind the choir I noticed these words, carved into the dark woodwork and gilded centuries ago, flanking the cross:


And it seemed to me to provide a very nice illustration of a little-understood fact: the English language has no future tense. Not a trace of one.

Quite clearly, the inscription intends to assert the existence of the Almighty in the past, the present, and the future. If there were a future tense of be, those who chose the wording would have used it. But they couldn't, because there isn't.

Instead of a future tense, English makes use of slew of verbs (auxiliary and non-auxiliary, modal and non-modal) such as be, come, go; may, shall, and will, various adjectives such as about, bound, and certain, and various idiomatic combinations involving infinitival complements. Reference to a variety of future times of different degrees of proximity can thus be achieved, often with some kind of modality (necessity or possibility) mixed in. Among the idioms used in Standard English are all of these:

is to be is to come is to come to be
is going to be is going to come is going to come to be
is about to be is about to come is about to come to be
is bound to be is bound to come is bound to come to be
is certain to be    is certain to come    is certain to come to be
may be may come may come to be
will be will come will come to be
shall be shall come shall come to be

The fact that there is a stubborn tendency in English grammar books to misrepresent will be as the future tense of be doesn't make it right. Traditional grammar is wrong about a whole big ugly bunch of other things too. The arguments that will does not form a tense are briefly summarized in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, chapter 3, section 10.1, pp. 208-212, and set out in more detail in an article by Rodney Huddleston ("The case against a future tense in English", Studies in Language 19:399-446, 1995). The arguments include the fact that will expresses volition as well as future temporal location, and that it shows its own tense contrast between present and preterite. In fact every single one of the above constructions can be put into the preterite (simple past) tense as well as the present tense:

was to be was to come was to come to be
was going to be was going to come was going to come to be
was about to be was about to come was about to come to be
was bound to be was bound to come was bound to come to be
was certain to be    was certain to come    was certain to come to be   
might be might come might come to be
would be would come would come to be
should be should come should come to be

What happens to the meaning is that the reference point is shifted back into the past, and reference is made to a point subsequent to that, but not necessarily subsequent to now. For example, the past-time-reference counterpart of They say it will be completed by Friday is They said it would be completed by Friday. The latter involves reference to a completion time that is not necessarily in the future relative to now (it could be that they promised completion for last Friday), but it is further on toward the future than the past time reference point to which the past tense of said points.

The claim I'm making is not that reference to future time cannot be made in English; of course it can. And the claim is not that will cannot be thus used: probably over 80 percent of its occurrences involve some kind of future time reference. My claim — Huddleston's claim — is simply that the varied ways we have of referring to future time in English are not part of the tense system; they involve a significant-sized array of idioms and periphrastic work-arounds — and the modal verb will has no particularly privileged place in that array.

If you would like to be convinced that will simply cannot be convincingly analyzed as a future tense marker, consider the examples below. What they show is that will has a wide range of meanings, ranging over volition, inclination, habituation, tendency, inference, and prediction. That is, will X can mean is firmly determined to do X, is inclined toward doing X, has a regular habit of doing X, has tended toward X in the past, can be inferred to be doing X right now, is predicted to do X, and various other shades of meaning.

Step this way, if you will, sir. Means "if you wish to", not "if you are definitely going to".
Won't you join us? Means "Don't you wish to join us?" — it's used to issue an invitation, not to request confirmation of a prediction.
That will be Mike. Uttered when the doorbell rings, this means I expect that it is Mike ringing the bell right now (not that it isn't yet but it is going to be).
My parents won't know that I'm here yet, so I should call them. Means that they don't know I'm here, not that a time is coming along in the future at which they will cease to know.
Ted and Alice cannot resolve their disputes; they will sometimes fight for hours until they're utterly exhausted. Means they have a habit of engaging such fights, in the past in particular. (Notice, Ted abd Alice might go into family counseling tomorrow, and the fighting might never happen again. That wouldn't make the statement false.)
The reason Warren Buffett has made so much money in his life is that he will not invest in fly-by-night operations. Means that he has a firm policy of not investing in fly-by-night operations, exemplified by his past practice. The sentence does not suggest that future refusals to invest in fly-by-night operations can explain past financial success!
Metallic potassium will explode on contact with water. Means potassium already does explode on contact with water, and has habitually done so in past experiments — not that it is going to at some future time.
I've warned him time and time again, but he won't listen; I'm finished with him. Means he doesn't listen, as a matter of habitual practice through all the past times I've warned him. (Notice, I'm finished with him: I'm not issuing any more warnings, so my claim is not about what the future is going to be like.)
If he was on that plane, he will have spent last night in an airport hotel in Cleveland. Means that in the world of the assumption that he caught the plane, he has already had his night in Cleveland. The reference is to a possible world that may or may not be the one we're in, but if we are in it, then the night at the airport hotel is already in our past.
The folks back home will be missing me right now. Means that they are missing me right now. It's not claiming that they'll spend Wednesday March 19th missing me on Tuesday March 18th. That's not even coherent. It would involve time travel.
Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 18, 2008 06:35 AM