The Verb Tense Dilemma: Is There Any Future?

It’s much simpler to introduce three verb tenses (past, present, and future) than two (past and present). If you acknowledge only two, then you need to explain that will is not a tense, but a modal verb. That opens up a whole new can of worms.

I’m not saying we should avoid the more complex path — after all, it’s the more accurate one. But there are times when I feel it’s okay to “fudge” terminology.  For example, when students ask me about “the future tense,” I sometimes reply to questions without clarifying that will is only a modal verb that allow us to express future states and actions.

At some point it becomes appropriate and very beneficial to discuss simple and perfect aspect and the uses of modal verbs to reflect time. But it’s possible to postpone that lesson until the timing is right.

What’s harder to avoid is the use of present verb forms with a future meaning. Students will encounter this grammar in many different contexts, and these patterns often cause confusion. Even students who don’t normally like focused grammar instruction end up asking questions about this topic. It can be helpful to keep a mental list of the more frequent uses:

1. Plans for the immediate future. Most students likely delight in the versatility of the present progressive. We can talk about an action in progress now (Shh. I’m trying to concentrate.) or a plan for the near future, for example:

  • I‘m leaving in five minutes.

2. Future time clauses. This is an easy rule to explain, and usually a few controlled exercises reinforce the pattern: Don’t use a future verb form in an adverb clause of time. You won’t see “will” or “be going to” after adverbs like when, after, before, and as soon as.  Example:

  • When she gets here, I’ll tell her everything.

3. Schedules. Official events that appear on a calendar often call for the simple present. Examples:

  • The movie starts at 8.
  • My plane leaves at 5.
  • Next week I‘m on vacation, so I’ll be traveling.

4. I hope… (that clause). All our hopes are about the future, and yet we have a choice about the grammar. Either the simple present or a future verb form (will or be going to) can follow the verb hope in a noun clause with that. Examples:

  • I hope we see each other again.
  • I hope we’ll see each other again.
  • I hope we’re going to see each other again.
  • (Also: hope  + infinitive) I hope to see you again.

5. Make sure (that clause). My grammar reference books don’t confirm the patterns I hear and see with make sure, but I believe this is another structure that allows for either the simple present or a future verb form. Most speakers seem to prefer the simple present. Examples:

  • I need to make sure that my grandmother has enough groceries for the week.
  • I need to make sure that my grandmother will have enough groceries for the week.
  • (Also: make sure + infinitive) Make sure to fill up gas on your way home, okay?

6. Be about to (do something). This is a weird-looking phrase, but we hear it in connection to intentions or expectations. There’s a sense of immediate action. Examples:

  • I‘m about to leave, so I’ll call you later.
  • The plane is about to take off. I have to turn off my phone.

Feel free to add to this list!


Photo credit: What? (September 26, 2007) by Mark. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Adi Rajan says:

    Three tenses or two? It’s dilemma I’ve struggled with as well. This is a really nice simple way of thinking about it – thank you!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Adi!

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