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Q&A

Why word future events in the present?

+4
−1

If you're around tomorrow, stop by.

I'll eat when I'm hungry.

She'll be coming around the mountain when she comes.

You're around tomorrow, I'm hungry, and she comes are describing future events but use present wording.

In fact, the corresponding future wording is wrong or at best awkward:

? If you'll be around tomorrow, stop by.

* I'll eat when I'll be hungry.

* She'll be coming around the mountain when she'll come.

Why?

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6 comments

Are you asking for some sort of intuitive explanation (beyond an answer just saying "That's how English grammar is"?) Moshi‭ 4 months ago

Not necessarily intuitive, no, @Moshi msh210‭ 4 months ago

@msh210 Then just a regular explanation? It's that way because "when" refers to the time the action takes place. If you say "I'll eat when I'll be hungry", it means you will eat at the time when being hungry is still in the future (which doesn't really make sense). Taken another way, "present" is relative - in the future, you being hungry is in the present. Moshi‭ 4 months ago

Taken even another way, "If you'll be around tomorrow" sounds like "If you plan to be around tomorrow" while "If you are around tomorrow" sounds like "If you happen to be around tomorrow". Moshi‭ 4 months ago

English doesn't have a future tense, so what else could it possible do??? curiousdannii‭ 4 months ago

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1 answer

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There is some arbitrariness in what you are[1] going to call (formal) future tense in an almost analytical language. The idea of grammatical categories, including which tenses to look for in a verb, came into English through Latin[2] whose morphology of verbs was considerably richer.

There is also some arbitrariness on the semantic side. There's a continuum from a one off event currently happening, through an event currently planned or desired or expected, toward a more hypothetical future events which is less grounded in present state of things from the speaker's perspective.

The traditional explanation answers your question quite elegantly: You would use the present tense to talk about future events that have some present reality. Notice especially how this resource presents the intermediate "to be going to" form.

One of the comments on the question mentions that English does not have a future tense. That's somewhat true morphologically. "I will" could be interpreted as a present tense of some kind, on par with "I want"[3] or "I am [going to]". Of course, if we accept that even ancient Greek and Latin have had some analytical verb forms[4], then "I will" is as good a future tense as one can get in American English.

Maybe more surprisingly, the English subjunctive mood comes with formal past and present tenses (and no counterpart of the indicative mood's future tense), although its present tense semantically refers to hypothetical events which are often imagined to happen, or to be learned of, in the future (if at all).

Going back to the indicative mood: it helps to notice that unadorned present tense is very often used in English in the frequentative meaning, i.e., it can be quite unspecific about whether it refers to repeated events in the past, at present, or in the future. The same could be said about some uses of the (formal) future tense, though: "Accidents will happen.".


  1. Pun tense intended. ↩︎

  2. From Wikipedia: "The first English grammar, Pamphlet for Grammar by William Bullokar, written with the seeming goal of demonstrating that English was quite as rule-bound as Latin, was published in 1586.[1] Bullokar's grammar was faithfully modeled on William Lily's Latin grammar, Rudimenta Grammatices (1534).[2] Lily's grammar was being used in schools in England at that time, having been "prescribed" for them in 1542 by Henry VIII." ↩︎

  3. German "ich will" means simply "I want"; it is not interpreted as future tense, despite sharing its origins with English "I will". The verb, be it considered auxiliary or not, is definitely formally irregular: instead of German *"er wilt" or English *"he wills", we have "er will" and "he will", respectively. ↩︎

  4. For example Latin "amatus sum", "I am loved", present passive. ↩︎

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