Student Stumper 40: Can I use “will” in a clause with “when”?

Often answers to grammar questions are easy to give, but occasionally a question really gives me pause. Even if I believe I know the answer, I find myself asking, ‘”Why is that correct?” The first rules that come to mind somehow don’t apply.

Some choose to downplay the importance of studying grammar. I agree that language learning goes beyond studying the rules, but we can’t just chuck those rules out the window. Those so-called rules guide us toward accurate use of language. We know that apostrophes are used to show possession and not form plural nouns. We know that subjects and verbs must agree. We know that “will” is not used in future time clauses, and a singular noun appears with an article. But within the past week, I had to reflect on those last two patterns. How standard are they? I’ll share my thoughts on “will” in this post.

QUESTION: Can I use “will” in a clause with “when”?

ANSWER: If it’s an adverb clause of time referring to the future, then use the simple present: When the weather gets warmer, the flowers will start to bloom. This pattern holds true for other adverbs, such as if: If the weather gets warmer, we’ll start gardening this weekend. “The simple present accompanied by an adverbial of time […] is used particularly where a future event is felt to be fixed and certain at the time of speech” (Biber et al. 455).

However, “when” has other functions. We can use “when” in a noun clause, or what Biber et al refer to as nominal clauses (193). Using a nominal clause as a direct object, I offer this example: I don’t know when the weather will get warmer, but hopefully it won’t stay this cold for much longer. I believe this use of “will” to mark the future is acceptable. Also, “will” could appear in relative clauses. Using “when” as a relative adverb, I could say, “There will come a time when more administrators will embrace the importance of foreign languages in elementary schools.” Do you agree? Could we drop the “will” and use the simple present with “embrace”?

Searching online for common patterns, I see that “when” as a relative adverb, especially with the head noun “time,”  leads to the greatest amount of variation.  Writers make different choices with their verbs in that relative clause. Some use the simple present, and others mark the future with “will.” Consider this popular quote by Sarah Caldwell, the late opera conductor: “Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can — there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did” (Retrieved from

I would argue that use of “will” is generally avoided in future time clauses, but this modal can mark the future in nominal and relative clauses. If you agree, you might teach this pattern indirectly by engaging your students in one of two activities:

  • “There Will Come a Time.” Read the poem and discuss this question: According to the writer, why are so many poems written about love?
  • Quotes can show the variation in verb forms. The above quote by Sarah Caldwell uses “will.” The following quote by American author Louis L’Amour uses the simple present. You can present both quotes and have students discuss their meanings, relating personal anecdotes when possible. Louis L’Amour: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning” (Retrieved from



Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Iftikhars Ali says:

    Hi, I have a problems in the following words. would be, could be, And should be, being, and still . please send me an explanation to improve my knowledge. I will be thank full to you always. your sincerely: Mr, Iftikhar Ali

    1. Hello.
      You are asking about modal verbs. Let’s discuss this on the forum.


  2. It’s good to see you framing this as being about will instead of being about the “future tense”. Do you think this is just will + will or does it apply with other subordinators and other modals?

    1. Sorry, I meant “just about when + will“.

      1. Yes, I understood. 🙂

    2. Hi Brett. I think this applies for future time clauses in general (with the adverbs when, if, as soon as, before, etc.) “When” has more versatility, though, so that’s where some of the confusion arises. As for relative clauses, I could see similar patterns with other relative pronouns, like “where.” For example, a director tells an actor:
      “Okay. This is your first mark. This is your second mark. At the part where Maggie walks in, you’ll need to be here with your back to the camera.”
      The simple present would be preferred, wouldn’t it?

      Thanks for thinking this one through with me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s