You probably think English has a future tense, don’t you? Past, present, future, that’s what they teach you in grade school (with some complications involving “present perfect” and “past progressive” and what have you). Well, it doesn’t. Don’t believe me? Believe Geoff Pullum, who explains that “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” and provides a table of uses of will “ranging over volition, inclination, habituation, tendency, inference, and prediction” that should convince anyone that it is not a marker of “future tense.”

(Yes, the post title is a nod to the Sex Pistols.)


  1. This is silly and obvious at the same time. Pullum’s various idioms and periphrases have become largely degrammaticalised and turned into a future tense, just as [present tense of ‘to be’] + [past participle] has turned into a passive voice. The fact that the grammar doesn’t work the same way as Latin doesn’t mean that there is no future or passive.

  2. Grammaticalized or grammaticized, rather than degrammaticalized, I think.
    But Conrad, you’re ignoring the converse data in the second half, where we see that “will” is not a reliable indicator of future time.

  3. marie-lucie says

    Having a future tense would mean having a specific form of the verb referring to the future, as in Latin, Spanish or French. Similarly, having a passive form would mean having a specific form of the verb dedicated to the passive meaning, as in Latin (but not Spanish or French which work as in English). Having a construction (or several) which most often refers to the future does not mean that there is a future tense in the morphological sense.
    Incidentally, the passive voice in English is formed with [to be], not just with its present tense. But it can also be formed with the verb [to get] in colloquial contexts.

  4. I’ll settled for re-grammaticalised. I don’t see how the unreliability of ‘will’ affects my point. It is obvious that a future tense is not part of the basic structure of English verbs–but then the same is possibly of true of Latin: some have speculated that the Latin tense-structure was originally an aspect-structure. The fact that a future meaning can be reliably created by an English speaker is all that matters.

  5. “Having a future tense would mean having a specific form of the verb referring to the future, as in Latin, Spanish or French.”
    Fine, but French (eg.) can also use idioms to generate the future, eg. with ‘aller’. The fact that French has one word/form for future tenses is merely a historical contingency; unlike Latin, it is apparently formed on the infinitive + ‘avoir’.
    I would have thought the fact that English lacked a formal (morphological) future tense obvious, especially to Dodsons and Pullums.

  6. You could create a similar table that showed the present tense being used to mean occurrence in the past or future, just as easily. That doesn’t mean English lacks a present tense, does it?
    ‘I am going to the store tomorrow’ – present tense, obviously describing future action
    ‘He happens to get a letter from his ex and you throw a fit?’ present tense, describing past action

  7. marie-lucie says

    Conrad, you are confusing meaning and form. Of course English, like other languages, can express a future meaning, with a variety of devices as listed by Pullum, but there is no dedicated future form. And the future meaning of [will + verb] is not fully grammaticalized, since the construction is also used for a variety of non-future uses, none of which seems likely to disappear in favour of a purely future interpretation of the construction.

  8. On the contrary, meaning and form are exactly what I am distinguishing. My point (which I think I have made pretty clearly) is that it is obvious a) that there is a future meaning, and b) that there is no future form. Neither of these should be surprising to any LH readers. LH presents the lack of future tense as a ‘wow fact’, when the only people impressed by this will be those who fail to distinguish meaning and form.
    ‘Will’ may not be fully grammaticalised, but it presents no great ambiguity in actual instances. When one uses ‘will’, there is no confusion about future / non-future.

  9. marie-lucie says

    The fact that a future meaning can be expressed by other devices than the future form (as in French) does not mean that that form does not exist. The fact that the French, Spanish or Italian future forms derive from a Latin construction of [verb + habere] (which eventually replaced a less regular Latin future tense) is besides the point in discussing the current languages. The historical path shows grammaticization of the construction and weakening of the habere component until only the r and the following endings were left, severing the link with the original construction and giving rise to a totally new morphological paradigm. This is a different case from that of [will + verb], where will still behaves like the other auxiliaries such as can, may, must and even do. Where these have merged with anything, it has not been with the following verb but with the intervening negation, thus won’t like don’t or can’t. As long as other words (negatives or adverbs) can occur between will and the following verb, will is unlikely to become attached to it in such a way as to result in a new tense form.

  10. marie-lucie says

    When a native speaker of English uses will, there is probably not much ambiguity in their mind, but with the variety of uses to which will can be put, it can present a problem for foreign learners. Take the sentence from Pullum: Metallic potassium will explode in contact with water (or something similar). An accurate translation into French would not use a future (tense or construction), it should be a present : le potassium explose …, since this is a statement of a general property and not a warning that something will happen at some point in the future.

  11. Neither of these should be surprising to any LH readers.
    There is a wide range of LH readers, and I do not write only for those with specialized linguistic knowledge. I think a lot of people will be surprised by the assertion that English does not have a future tense. (You seem oddly belligerent about this rather recondite issue.)

  12. marie-lucie says

    Yes, LH, thank you for bringing up points and letting everyone learn from each other’s comments. Nobody knows everything, nor should they be expected to.

  13. Alright, sorry.

  14. Alright, sorry.
    What? Nobody apologizes in blog threads. That’s awesome of you.

  15. Marie-Lucie: I also found helpful the distinction you drew between form and meaning. Clear thinking. Thanks.

  16. On the contrary, meaning and form are exactly what I am distinguishing.
    Actually, I’m with marie-lucie here. Pullum’s point was that while “will” can function as an indicator of future, it has other uses and cannot be considered a future marker the same way French “-ra” etc., Slavic auxiliary verb “budu/budem/bedzie” and “ću”, Classical Arabic prefix “sa-“/particle “sawfa” etc. can. In that way, not even “will” has been grammaticalized. The fact that, in your words, English lacks a formal (morphological) future tense, is indeed obvious to anyone. Pullum points out that there is no formal (syntactic) future tense – “will”, normally classified as a future marker, isn’t exclusively that. It’s all about the polysemy of “will”. Speaking of grammaticalization – whereas comparable ٍCroatian/Serbian/Bosnian/Montenegrin “hoću dati” can mean both “I want to give” and “I will give” and that’s about it, “will” can carry a lot of other meanings. And even in CSBM there is a tendency to reserve the full form “hoću” for the modal meaning while the future marker is slowly turning into a suffix – “daću” (dati+ču) seems to be much more common than “hoću dati”. There is much more ambiguity in English, especially when you compare it to the entire system or just the past tense where there is a limited number of dedicated past markers.
    That being said, I have my doubts about
    *phone rings / doorbell rings / new IM message pops up*
    “That will be Mike”.
    I’ve always understood it as “When I get to the phone / door / computer, I will have the opportunity to speak to / see / communicate with Mike.” In that sense, this “will” may indeed refer to the future.

  17. When I was teaching English in Taiwan I got bogged down in the various modals. The texts available taught will-would-can-could-may-might-must very haphazardly, so I started to write my own material.
    It was fascinating, but that’s a tall order and I didn’t do very well. These things are hard to make explicit.
    Another time I tried to specify the use of the articles “a” and “the”, which my students had trouble with (which they solved by mostly leaving them out, and sometimes by using them randomly).
    Again — hard to make explicit, lots of exceptions, and the textbooks were worthless.
    Or plurals: two dogs are two dogs, but two cheeses or wines most likely are two kinds of wine or kinds of cheese.
    The dog is a noble creature.
    Dogs are noble creatures too.
    A dog walked unexpectedly into the room.
    But the dog who walked into the room is just a dog.
    The noble creature is the generic dog, not him.
    Dogs are noble creatures, but many dogs just aren’t.

  18. “I do not write only for those with specialized linguistic knowledge. I think a lot of people will be surprised by the assertion that English does not have a future tense.”
    As one of those LH readers without specialised linguistic knowledge, I enjoyed both the original post and the comments that followed. I would describe my reaction to the original post more as, “Oh yeah, I’d never really thought about it, but now that I do, it’s obvious” than as “Wow, that’s incredible!”, but I’m sure that are plenty of amateurs (in its OED no.1 sense) and dilettantes like me who enjoy having their horizons broadened and are grateful that professionals like LH take the time and effort to write about their specialty in a way that educates and captivates the imagination. Thanks too, to all who reply, for adding to the enjoyment and edification.

  19. I don’t know… I think the whole “That will be Mike” thing really ought to be (derives from?) “That WOULD be Mike.” Compare with Spanish’s “Será mi madre” (“That will/would be my mother”) when making an immediate call of who’s just called on the telephone, for instance. Technically it’s a future construction but it’s used in a conditional sense.

  20. OrangeDrink says

    I think everyone had good contributions. Nothing like a friendly argument.
    I liked what you were saying Conrad, and nicely put marie-lucie. As a dilettante, I have to simply put faith in linguistics far beyond my grasp, so arguments such as these help reveal how an analysis comes about in the first place.

  21. Okay, it’s really late and I am really tired and perhaps am not reading straight, but I think Pullum (for all that I love him) is cracked on this. Tense doesn’t just mean “verb form”. So what if you use additional verbs to convey future? And so what if “will” or other verbs used to describe future tense also have other meanings? Russian has a future tense verb form that can also be used to mean the past and present. Does that mean it isn’t a “real” future tense?
    Here’s one definition of tense: “Tense is a grammatical category, typically marked on the verb, that deictically refers to the time of the event or state denoted by the verb in relation to some other temporal reference point.”
    I don’t think there is a distinction between form and meaning with tense.

  22. Neither of these should be surprising to any LH readers.

    Well, maybe. But for those of us with only a dabbling interest in linguistics, it might be useful to have it explained so clearly. For me, it was less of a “Holy shit, no future!” than a “Huh, that’s right, isn’t it.”

  23. Of course, the so-called “future tense” forms in French and Spanish also have a variety of modal uses (both deontic and epistemic) and aspectual uses, and, like English’s, they both have corresponding preterites (the so-called “conditional mood”). As it happens, I agree with Pullum, but not 100% with the specific arguments he gives. Personally I’m more convinced by the syntactic arguments — e.g., the strong aversion to strictly-future-sense “will” in subordinate adverbial clauses (e.g. “When he comes, I’ll let you know”, not *”When he’ll come, I’ll let you know”), and the fact that all the defective modals have clear past and non-past forms (e.g. “When could he come?” = past vs. “When can he come?” = future).

  24. “Tense is a grammatical category, typically marked on the verb, that deictically refers to the time of the event or state denoted by the verb in relation to some other temporal reference point.”
    The key phrase is “grammatical category”. Futurity may be a semantic category (it forms a nice trio with “pastness” and “presentness”), but an a priori division of time into past, present and future doesn’t automatically make futurity into a grammatical category. People may like to divide time along those lines, but grammar doesn’t necessarily follow suit.
    Trying to say that English has a “present tense” just because Latin has one is not much different from trying to force a “pluperfect tense” on languages that don’t have them. “Pastness in the past” is a relevant semantic category, but not every language expresses it grammatically.

  25. Always remember: grammatical anything and the corresponding semantic anything don’t have to line up neatly. In fact, they only do so often enough to confuse us into thinking that they usually do.
    Tlingit, which I work on, has a future tense but no present or past. The future tense is sort of an accident morphologically, showing up in what is otherwise a completely aspectual system. It’s made up of a couple of morphemes that are used for other things in other combinations, but in one particular form happens to indicate a point in time somewhere in the future as referenced from now.
    This lack of present and past of course doesn’t cripple Tlingit. It’s quite easy to talk about pastness using the perfective aspect. And presentness is just indicated with one of the various nonperfective aspects, like progressive or imperfective. Indeed, Tlingit offers aspects that are far beyond the capabilities of English grammar, and that show up as unwieldy circumlocutions in translation.

  26. Please be patient with me; I am (annoyingly) trying to both understand the argument and argue against it.
    The only other language I know well is Russian, and the future tense exists but can also be used to mean action in the past and present. Я шла по улице, и вдруг кто-то как схватит меня за руку. (I was walking down the street when someone suddenly grabbed my arm.) Придёт к учителю, сядет и молчит…(He would visit the teacher, sit and say nothing.)Ночь была тихая и ясная. Ветер то прошелестит в кустах, то замрёт.(The night was quiet and clear. The wind would rustle the bushes and then would die down.) In all those examples, the future tense is used to describe kinds of action in the past.
    In Russian the pluperfect does not exist. You cannot say grammatically “By 5 pm tomorrow I will have finished my report.” The pluperfect describes a time in the future that is in the past in relation to an even more future time. In Russian there is no way to describe that “time period.” All you can say is Я закончу отчет до 5 часов. (I will finish the report by 5pm).
    Pullum says that of course you can make reference to the future in English, and in 80 percent of the cases you do this using “will,” but that “will” is not a reliable marker of future. Well, the future verb tense in Russian is equally not a reliable marker. But I can’t imagine that you would argue, as Pullum does, that therefore the future tense doesn’t exist in Russian.
    But you could argue that the pluperfect doesn’t exist in Russian, because you can’t express that particular time (which is a relationship between other times)in any way.

  27. michael farris says

    Pluperfect actually means ‘relative past’ (past in relation to a non-present time.)
    This isn’t needed in Slavic languages because the tense of verbs is assigned differently. In English tense often has to take both the time of speaking and the tense of another verb into consideration, while Slavic languages use one or the other but not both.
    If you think of the tense labels not as past, present and future but as before X, during X and after X then it makes more sense. In direct speech (for lack of a better term) the three correspond to past, present and future, but in indirect speech they refer only to the time established by X.
    And the future pluperfect is essentially useless. It’s a case of the grammar making something possible that is never really needed. I can’t imagine a situation where the ‘distinction’ between “I’ll have finished by 5.” and “I’ll finish by 5.” could make any important difference (if someone can I’m sure we’ll hear about it shortly). It’s not important (in the same way that past perfect can be).
    It’s a little like Polish having a vocative case form for things that no sane individual would ever address: Łyżko! (Oh, spoon!) perfectly grammatical but useless.
    My native intuition about (US) English is that present and future blend into to each other in a way that present and past don’t.
    My non-native intuition about the Slavic language I know (Polish) is that there is a dedicated future tense even if it doesn’t always refer to actual future time, it always refers to something ‘after X’ whether X is present or past. (I think something about Slavic aspect prevents carrying relative time into the future but I’m not sure what).

  28. Michael, I’m not arguing for the existance of pluperfect in Russian. Heaven forbid! Russians have lived without it for millenia, and they seem to have been able to lead rich and fulfilling lives. I’m just saying that the pluperfect is an example of a tense — the time frame described by the tense pluperfect — that TRULY does not exist.
    Pullum seems to be saying that the English future tense doesn’t exist because “will” can be used to express something other than the future in 20 percent of cases in which it is used. “Will” is therefore not a reliable marker of future tense, ergo the future tense does not exist. First, where did he get those figures? Second, who said that words denoting the future tense must always denote only the future tense in order for the future tense to be said to exist? Who determined the percentage cut off point? If “will” denoted the future in 90 percent of its usage instead of 80 percent, could we then declare that the English future tense exists?
    I don’t know any other languages well, but at least Russian is like English: the future tense (an actual verb form) is not a reliable denotation of the future (“after X”). In many cases in Russian the verb form future tense refers to other time frames and aspect — things like habitual actions or, conversely, sudden actions. It does not always refer to something “after X.” Молодость не вернешь! is literally “you will not bring back your youth,” but it doesn’t refer to a time in the future, after X, when that will be true (or imply that there was a time in the past or present when that was not true). It refers to all times — in the past it was true, in the present it is true, and in the future it will be true.
    By Pullum’s logic, since the Russian future tense (verb form) is not a reliable indicator of the time “after X,” it doesn’t exist. I think that’s silly.

  29. Well, Mab, you’ve fucked me up good. I was sure I had it.
    Now as I understand your argument, which I think takes fully into account the distinction between things grammatical and semantic, you’re saying that because there are verb forms in other languages which linguists are content to label “past” or “future” even though the semantic correlation is often inconsistent, Pullum’s chart doesn’t make an open-and-shut case for no future tense. It may be part of an argument for why linguists shouldn’t label a “will+verb” form “future” (maybe it’s TOO inconsistent), but it isn’t the whole story.
    I think Ran seems to be addressing this most directly, though I’d simply have to take his/her(?) word for it about the other arguments he/she refers to.
    Overall, I’m pretty confused again.

  30. No, Pullum is saying that there is no English future tense because there is no verb form specifically showing that. The Russian future tense can be used to describe actions in the past, but you still use the future tense FORM. Pullum would NOT say Russian has no future tense, any more than he says English has no present tense because the form can be used to describe actions in the past or future.
    Form =/= function

  31. Having just reread Pullum’s post, I don’t think he means the chart to be an open-and-shut case. I think he’s saying something more along the lines of, “After analyzing tons of data and writing an eighteen-hundred page book, I’m convinced that the correlation between futurity and a will+verb form is so inconsistent that it isn’t even useful to label such a form future — and here are a few quick examples, just to give you a sense of it.” Is that how everybody else is reading it?

  32. Yes, I think that’s an excellent summary.

  33. marie-lucie says

    How does Pullum know that will is used with future meaning 80% of the time? he is the co-author of a huge grammar of contemporary English which relies heavily on thousands of actual examples, none invented by the authors. Look up “Language Log” and then search his name.
    The future form being used also for the past: in French and Spanish (at least) it is possible (at least in literary or historical writing) to use the future in the middle of a past-tense narration, as English would use would + verb, for instance in recounting the life of a person and alluding at certain points to something that happened later: “At the age of 21, X joined the Y party – he would later publicly renounce his allegiance”: in this case literary French and Spanish use the future (as the later event is in a future time relative to the period referred to). This does not mean that the verb form is not future. I don’t know enough Russian to tell if this is what happens in Russian.
    Back to Pullum’s post, it starts with him noticing in an old church the words God Almighty … which was and is and is to come: in this case the future meaning is indicated by is to come (which is still used: The worst is yet to come). I seem to recall that the more traditional equivalent of and is to come is this context is and ever shall be (I learned I shall but you, s/he, we, they will when I was first taught English). Perhaps more modern translations use and always will be, and a very colloquial version could be and is always gonna be. This makes a lot of changes in a few centuries (and perhaps across regions and degrees of formality), compared to the enduring solidity of the difference between the present and past forms, especially in the most common verbs (is/was, eat/ate, drive/drove, etc) which preserve millenia-old formations. This variability in future expression is another reason why it can be said that not only there isn’t, but there has never been a future tense in English, only various competing ways of expressing future meaning.

  34. Huddleston’s paper doesn’t appear to be online for free, but a quick search does turn up some others that are:
    The conflict between future tense and modality: the case of will in English
    Probability and necessity in English and German
    The French future tense and English will as markers of epistemic modality
    Explaining English Grammar
    Mood and Modality
    And in JSTOR one of the first to object to the notion of future tense in English:
    The Expression of the Future

  35. The Ridger (interesting name…) writes: “Pullum is saying that there is no English future tense because there is no verb form specifically showing that.” That’s not true. He states that “will” shows that, by his count 80 percent of the time.
    My point is that this is also true for Russian(tho I don’t know about percentages, and it sounded like he just pulled his percentage out of the air), even when Russian has a clearly expressed verbal form for the future.
    I know he wrote THE Grammar of the English language, and I actually love his writing. I love his rants in particular. But sometimes his rants go too far, and I think this is a case of that. Maybe jamessal is right and he was saying, “Gosh, darn, ain’t that interesting? Are we sure we can call this a true future tense?” and his rather, um, emphatic style is misleading. He sounds like self-annointed Lord God AllMighty of the Future Tense. But then — I would think the point would be: “will is actually not a consistent marker of the future,” not “there is no future tense in English.”

  36. I would think the point would be: “will is actually not a consistent marker of the future,” not “there is no future tense in English.”
    Yes, but there’s a certain level of inconsistency at which calling it a future tense at all wouldn’t be useful for either linguists or people learning the language. I think Pullum is saying that he’s done the research, and the will+verb form reaches that point of inconsistency. Hence, for practical purposes (the only purposes there are,really): no future tense in English.

  37. To me this is fairly commonplace, and shouldn’t have raised so much dust. When I started teaching i had to learn the system, and it was best explained as a mizture of inflection (tense: is was), modal auxiliaries (will would …. may might must) and aspect auxiliaries (have has had). Plus passives and progressives. The point, if I’m not mistaken, is just that inflection does a lot less of the work, compared to a romance language anyway.

  38. Richard Hershberger says

    I have seen versions of this discussion in various forums over the years. The problem is merely one of definition. Traditional English grammars define “tense” loosely. Is tense a semantic category relating to when stuff happens, or is it an morphological category? Traditionally, this question is not raised.
    This works just fine much of the time, but problems can arise. Consider
    (1) I am visiting my aunt.
    (2) I am visiting my aunt tomorrow.
    If tense is a semantic cateogry, then (1) is clearly some form of present tense and (2) is clearly in the future tense. But the only different between them is the word “tomorrow”. So tense can be disconnected from the verb.
    No one defines tense this way. Traditional grammars would say that
    (3) I will visit my aunt tomorrow.
    is in the future tense, while (2) is something else which also expresses futurity somehow, as indeed to many other constructions. So why is (3) declared the future tense and all those other forms something else? It seems to be arbitrary, based more on copying older grammars than on any principled consideration.
    This arbitrariness is a constant feature. If we allow auxiliaries to form tenses, then why do we stop here? We don’t English grammars call
    (4) I will have visited my aunt tomorrow.
    the future perfect tense? Why don’t they speak of the English pluperfect? And so on. Look at English grammars from the 18th and early 19th centuries and you sometimes find such things.
    Getting back to Pullum’s point, modern linguists cut through this confusion by seperating the semantic content of when stuff happens from the morphological consideration of the verb. They assign the word “tense” to morphology. In principle they could have assigned it the other way, but there are good historical reasons for going the way they did. It takes a bit of gettig used to, but it really does work better in the long run.
    Next topic: is “case” a syntactic or a morphological category? Discuss the English dative. Show your work if you hope for partial credit. No, I’m not grading on a curve.

  39. The dative is the only thing I found in German that I wished we had in English.
    But I’m not touching your question.

  40. RH, thanks for your attempt to help me see the light. I don’t see it. I suppose I should try to slog through the whole analysis.
    And I am still uneasy with these descriptions of tense. When Pullum cites Huddleston saying that there is an element of volition in “will,” he seems to imply that therefore “will” is not a “pure” tense. Again, why not? Various future tenses (simple and compound) in Russian have different levels of volition or intention. That doesn’t seem to disqualify them from being the future tense.
    But I’ll be quiet now and take my medicine like a good girl. It’s not healthy for me to get overexcited.

  41. Richard Hershberger says

    One thing that might help is to not think in terms of “descriptions” of tense, but of definitions. “Tense” is a technical term of art. Much of the whackiness we see in this discussion is people using different definitions. Once we realize the problem, we can either coordinate our terminology or agree to use the terms differently. Either way, there isn’t any real reason for angst. If you use “tense” with one definition and I use it with another, we ought not be surprised or upset that we get different results.
    For what it is worth, my understanding is that the morphological definition is pretty widespread among linguists; at least those working in English. But I am not a linguist, so take my understanding for what it is worth.
    For what else it is worth, if you look closely at classical grammarians (who are, after all, where we get many of these terms from) such as Varro, they used it this way as well. This is obscured by Greek and Latin inflections mapping more closely to semantic categories than is true in English. You can go a long time without worrying about the distinction in English. You can go an even longer time in Greek or Latin.

  42. Yes, I see the different definitions. As you can tell, I’m not a linguist, but work with two languages all the time. And as you can tell, I don’t like the definition Pullum et al use (as far as I can understand it), since by their definition(s), Russian would also not have a future tense and that seems patently wrong to me. Besides, it would surprise Russians. After all, they think they have a future tense, and they should know, right?

  43. rootlesscosmo says

    It’s a little like Polish having a vocative case form for things that no sane individual would ever address: Łyżko! (Oh, spoon!) perfectly grammatical but useless.
    “Spade! With which WILKINSON hath tilled his lands,” etc.
    (quoted in Lee and Lewis, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse)

  44. michael farris says

    I’m having trouble with this sentence (hardly knowing Russian but with enough other Slavic knowledge to make up for that some).
    Я шла по улице, и вдруг кто-то как схватит меня за руку. (I was walking down the street when someone suddenly grabbed my arm)
    The first clause makes perfect sense, with what I assume (on analogy) is an imperfective verb (шла),
    but the second clause is it dependent or independent? … схватит looks like the verb, is it perfective?
    I’m trying to process a perfective verb in that context and completely failing. Is the walker’s arm grabbed as she walks or after? And it looks more like two indpendent clauses rather than a main and subordinate one which would I thought require another past tense … I’m horribly horribly confused, can anyone enlighten?

  45. michael farris says

    But, but, …. anyone could talk to a spade, thats perfectly natural, but a spoon? That’s just deviant!
    Okay … mr wiseguy, let’s see you come up with something for:
    “Skarpetko!” (Sock!)
    Ręczniku! (Towel!)
    Tipsie! (Artificial fingernail! [yes, from ‘tip’])

  46. Michael, you’ll never understand the Poles and their dramatic relationships to the simplest household items.
    And after all your years of study, too.

  47. The problem with future tense isn’t that “the correlation between futurity and a will+verb form is so inconsistent that it isn’t even useful to label such a form future”.
    The problem is that “will” is a modal auxiliary, just like “can”, “must”, and “shall”, that has been roped into being called the future tense because, on the Latin model of grammar, every language has to have a future tense.
    Semantically, “will” may be an expression of futurity, but elevating “will” into a tense marker while “can”, “would”, “shall”, “should”, “must”, “may”, “might” etc. remain humble modal auxiliaries pretty much ignores the the actual system of English grammar.
    “Tense” and “time” need to be kept apart. English is able to express “time” in many different ways. For instance, future time can be expressed with “will do”, “shall do”, “be going to do”, “be doing”, “do”, “can do”, “may do” etc. (using “do” as the example verb).
    As a grammatical tense, however, the elevation of “will do” to the exalted status of “future tense” has nothing to do with English grammar and a lot to do with a desperate need to find something, anything in English that could be equated to the Latin future tense.
    Arguments proving that “will” is not necessarily future in meaning are simply designed to show that, like other modals in English, “will” has a range of subtly different meanings that are not related to its simplistic assignment to “future tense”. Like other modal auxiliaries, “will” even has a past tense. If “will” is a future tense marker in the way that traditional grammarians are labelling it, what the hell is it doing with a past tense? The reason is simple: “will” is not the “future tense” in the grammatical sense. It’s merely a jumped up modal auxiliary.

  48. “After all, they [the Russians] think they have a future tense, and they should know, right?”
    Not necessarily. People get used to the grammatical categories they’ve been taught. I don’t know anything about Russian. But having learnt Japanese and had a stab at Mongolian, I’m rather fascinated by the way that similar phenomena are analysed in rather different ways, depending on the outside influence. For example, Mongolian is said to have seven or eight cases (based on Russian grammar), while Japanese nouns are never said to have cases, merely “postpositions” or “clitic particles”. Despite this, Mongolian is much more similar to Japanese than to Russian. Mongolian cases are rather morphologically complex, but the traditional Mongolian script treats the genitive, for instance, in pretty much the same way as the Japanese possessive particle (“no”). Modern Russian-influenced grammar, on the other hand, treats it like a case ending.
    If Mongolians believe that their language has a “dative case”, “genitive case”, etc. while Japanese speakers don’t, the difference has a lot more to do with who is doing the analysing than the actual nature of the languages themselves.

  49. схватит looks like the verb, is it perfective?
    Yes it is a verb and it’s perfective.
    The problem with Slavic languages is the aspect. It could be said that Slavic verbs only have two simple (i.e. morphological tenses) – past and non-past, where non-past serves different functions: imperfective verbs (too late for me to think of Russian, so get ready to learn some Slovak), such as “vidieť” = “to see” only have a present tense – “vidím” – and a past tense/perfect “videl som”. The future is formed periphrastically, by means of the auxiliary “byť” in its future tense, i.e. “budem vidieť”. Perfective verbs, such as “uvidieť”, only have a perfect – “uvidel som” (more like “I spotted”) – and a future tense “uvidím”, but no present tense. That’s how I used to explain it to students, but that’s not a good analysis. In both imperfective present tense and perfective future tense, same set of suffixes is used, so we can’t speak of the future sense in Spanish or French sense. The only difference is the verbal prefix “u-“, but again, that does not function as a future marker, because it crops up in the past tense, too. So it’s the combination of present tense suffixes and a perfective marker that makes the future tense. But what about verbs with different imperfective and perfective stems, like “sedieť” and “sadnúť” (“sit”)?
    In any case:
    1. Slavic languages and English are two different cases.
    2. Russian (and Polish and Slovak and Czech and Croatian etc.) does have a dedicated future tense: буду видеть, będzie widział, budem vidieť, budu vidět, videću etc. The fact that Russian perfective verbs in the non-past tense can also used be in retelling of past events is really interesting (Slovak perfective non-past can be used that way, too), but it doesn’t change anything about буду видеть. And I suspect it’s an issue of aspect, not tense.

  50. “What about Finnish?” the reader may ask.
    The Direct Object
    Most Finnish grammars are particularly easy to understand on this point. The basic idea is: In Finnish the direct object (commonly called the accusative object) may occur in the nominative, the genitive, or the partitive case. In order to make things easier to understand, nominative and genitive are called accusative. There is also a real accusative which is not called anything at all. Utmost care must be applied when interpreting the grammatical terminology. If you encounter the word ‘accusative,’ it can mean nominative or genitive, but never the real accusative. The term ‘nominative’ can mean accusative or, possibly, nominative. ‘Genitive’ can mean accusative or simply genitive, while partitive is always called partitive, although it may be accusative.
    From “Finnish as a world language?”, Richard Lewis, “Sesquipedalian”, Vol III, numbers 8-11.

  51. Re: “Most Finnish grammars are particularly easy to understand on this point.”
    Hilarious reading!

  52. marie-lucie says

    Usually (at least in linguistics) when a term can mean two completely different, even opposite concepts, it is because the framework used is incorrect. For instance, in Latin there is the adjective altus (alta, altum) which can mean both “high” (like a tree or mountain) and “deep” (like a well). In fact these definitions miss the point: the word means something like “at a remove from the horizontal, earth plane along a perpendicular axis” – the direction (up or down) can easily be deduced from the object to which the adjective applies but is not part of the basic meaning of the word itself. Similarly, as others noted above, trying to fit English or Finnish into the Latin framework, or Mongolian into the Russian framework, will only work so far, like fitting square pegs into round holes (or is it the opposite?): you can sort of make it fit, up to a point, but it won’t be a very accurate job.

  53. marie-lucie says

    (I should have said: along a vertical axis, which would have been sufficient).

  54. No one has mentioned the use of “going to” as future.
    [BE] going to + [base verb], the base verb being the part of the verb used with a modal or with “to” to form an infinitive.
    As in,
    “I am going to eat chocolate.”
    “She is going to play chess.”
    “They are going to bring snacks to class.”
    “I am going to go to bed early.”
    not to be confused with
    “I am going to bed early.”
    which would be either present continuous or present progressive, depending on how old you are.

  55. Bathrobe (love these names), I see what you are saying, although I would have thought that polysemy (as someone mentioned ages ago) would also be a factor. And I can’t quite figure out why a distinction between functional and grammatical is so important. But then, I don’t describe languages for a living, I use them, and the functional aspects are more important to me.
    Michael, that sentence is one of those puzzlers for foreigners learning Russian. Свхатит is a perfective future form, and the oddity is that it used in a past-tense construction. Как+perfective future = a sudden, abrupt action, whatever the time period. The other examples I gave also use perfective future in past-tense settings. They give a kind of immediacy to the image/action.
    Bulbul, I wouldn’t say that Russian only has past and non-past, but yes, it’s aspect that makes it difficult for us English-speakers to learn and use, and that makes it difficult to compare with English. As I wrote, what Pullum et al describe as the usage of “will” that disqualifies it from being a “true future tense” can also be said of the future tense in Russian — which is definitely morphological. Hence my discontent with the definition and its usefulness.

  56. he future tense in Russian — which is definitely morphological
    What’s the future tense affix?

  57. ZeroLinguist says

    That’s bull twat. English doesn’t have a ‘tense’ he’s just getting all worked up over the meaning of the word tense because he wants the verbs to change themselves with an inflection, obviously if I say
    “I’m going to kill the man who said that” or “She will jump up and down” you know I’m talking about a future event? And as for languages that don’t mark it, like say Chinese, the meaning of the future is still there usually with a time word…

  58. “It is a good sounding language; in other words, it is pleasing to the ear. This has to do with its wealth of vowels, which rules out ugly consonant clusters. It was recently suggested that some vowels should be exported to Czechoslovakia, where shortage of vowels is imminent, and that some Czech consonants should be imported to Finland.”
    From “Finnish as a world language?”, Richard Lewis, “Sesquipedalian”, Vol III, numbers 8-11.

    Ah yes, I remember the terrible vowel shortage of 1988. The government did their best to negotiate with the Finns. With a typical disregard for the Slovak people, the Prague junta even offered our most precious commodity, the palatal lateral approximant [ʎ]. The Finns laughed us off saying they could get enough of [ʎ] from Russia to drown the entire country in. And at better prices, too. One round of talks after another collapsed and in september of 1989, phonetic catastrophe seemed all but unavoidable. Luckily, then the revolution came. If it hadn’t been for that, w cld hv ndd p spkng lk ths.

  59. I’d like to thank mab for sticking to her guns and forcing a clarification of the issues involved, and bulbul for his pleasing historical anecdote.

  60. I’d like to thank John Emerson for the Finnish quote that made me laugh out loud.
    I’m avoiding the affix question. I think it’s a trap.

  61. Pullum had a post recently in which he argues that even a phrase as seemingly self-evident as “Goddamn America” can’t be interpreted out of context because in some contexts a given phrase can be used to mean different things. He goes so far as to say: “There are occasions when the context really does change everything.” Fine, then let’s apply it to the supposed phenomenon that is the start of the bizarre claim that “English has no future tense.”

    It should be an easy guess that a reference to God in a church comes from the Bible, and the words “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was and is and is to come” are in fact a quotation of Revelation 4:8. Uh oh. We’re now using what is clearly an archaic translation of the Bible (note “which” used of an animate antecedent, clearly not an acceptable usage in modern English). Translations by definition are not a good reflection of normal linguistic usage since the choice of words in the “target” language is clearly affected by the original, and this problem is all the more acute in a translation of a sacred text, for which translators often try to be as literal as possible. That is, they don’t feel comfortable with changing the “surface” meaning of the original into a more idiomatic form in the target language, even if the “literal” translation is not an accurate reflection of what is *meant*. This is true of the vulgate translation of the bible into Latin, which is often close to gibberish, and the same holds true for early modern translations of the Bible (e.g., Grk. kai is often rendered as the conjunction “and” when it’s being used adverbially to mean “even, also”, which can thoroughly obscure the sense of the original).

    What then is the original of this phrase that leads to ruminations about their not being a future tense in English? Hagios, hagios, hagios Kyrios ho theos pantokratōr ho ēn, ho ōn, ho erkhomenos (I’ll put it in transliteration for present purposes). The first part is rendered accurately enough, but the part from “ho” on is problematical in the Greek. “Ho” is the definite article (here in the nominative) followed in the second and third instances with a participle, which can be rendered in English best with a relative clause (“the one doing”=” who does”). The first “ho” is odd in that it is followed by a finite verb, the imperfect form of the verb to be (“eimi”). Why this oddity? Because the second “ho” has the present participle of the same verb and clearly means “who is (exists)”, and the first “ho” clause is meant to be a past version of this, but the verb to be does not normally have an aorist (that is, perfective) participle, so to make good the lack of an appropriate participle, the writer (rather clumsily) used a finite verb. So far, so good: “the one who was and who is”. But what of “ho erkhomenos”, which is rendered as “is to come” in Pullum’s church and led to all these ruminations about the “furture” tense? “Erkhomai” is a simple verb that means “be in motion”, i.e., “come” or “go” depending on English idiom. So the Greek literally means “one who is coming.” What is the meaning of this here? I don’t really know, and I suppose one would have to ask the four living creatures full of eyes that were standing around the throne what they meant. Unfortunately for the translators of the Bible, they couldn’t interview the creatures and were stuck with their own sense of the passage, and given the two clauses that precede, they guessed that it should refer to future existence. On this basis, they took the notion of “coming” and *added* to it the future tense and the sort of supplementary infinite of the verb “to be”. In effect, they took the surface menaing of the Greek and “fleshed” it out with the expected tense and verb. But this is all conjecture on their part. Now, as it turns out, “conveniently” this gives some sort of nice sense in English, in that we have a quasi-future idiom “come to” + infinite meaning “eventually happen in the long run” (or the like), as in “it will come to pass that…”. But this felicitous outcome in terms of generating acceptble English has nothing to do with the original, except to the extent that it represents an attempt to manipulate English to get acceptable meaning out of paradoxical text.

    Now, you might be saying to yourself, “So what? How does that affect the issue of the English future tense?” Well, first off, the start of Pullum’s post comes from a reflection on the supposed fact that a simple “future” action may well be expressed without the ostensible marker of the future, the “auxiliary” verb “will.” But I find it hard to imagine that any native speaker of English would not, unless prompted by some odd foreign-language usage in a text being translated, say anthing other than “who was and is and will be.” Because the future tense of the verb “to be” is “will be.”
    But, Pullum would say, what of other markers of the future, like “be going to” + infinite or “be about to” + infinitive? Clearly, there are other ways to express futurity, but they all have some sort of nuance to them, which “will” + infinitive does not (“there’s going to be blood” is not the same thing as “there will be blood”, and “there’s about to be blood” doesn’t even seem to be admissible here). That is, it seems to me that “will” + infinitive is the way tout court to express in English a future event, and all other methods involve some sort of nuance that *will* + infin. doesn’t have.

    And this may be a good place to clear up confusion about the distinction between a synthetic and an analytical tense. In a synthetic formation, a single word is modified through some sort of prefix/suffix and or vowel modification to show a different form, in this case tense, e.g., Latin amabo as the future of amo. We have this usage in English only with the simple past (sang vs. sing). In a an anlytical form, some sort of auxiliary verb is used to give the intended nuance to the semantically relevant verb, which in English appears in its “base” (i.e,. infinitive) form. Such auxiliaries are almost always derived from some sort of basic regular verb (be, go, has, want), and can be recognizable as the original simple form to a greater or lesser degree. In English, they can mostly be recognized in their orinal form (“am going, have taken”), though even here they are often abraded to be unrecognizable (is “he’s gone” from “has” or “is”? It can vary). In some languages the auxiliary has been “grammaticalized” so that it is no longer recognizable at all as an independent form. Copitc, for instance, has a very full set of auxiliary tense/mood markers that were originally recognizable indepdent verbs, but in the language as spoken have been so reduced/abraded that they could not have been perceived as such, even when the original verb still existed (only historical linguistics makes the derivation clear). The same goes for the “future” tense of the western Romance languages, which was formed from the Latin verb habeo + infinitive. Seemingly, this is a synthetic formation (and would be understood as such from a synchronic point of view), but is analytical in origin. The point of all this is that a formation based on an auxiliary verb is no less a “tense” than one using a synthetic procedure. That is, “will sing” is no less a tense than “sang,” and that form is the normal way to refer to the future operation of the verb, even if the nuance of other formations is preferred under certain circumstances.

    Pullum makes the argument that “will VERB” can mean something other than indicate the future operation of the verb in question. This is a totally irrelevant point, or at least if it applies to the future, it just as well applies to all other tenses and would invalidate any “single, normative” interpretation of a tense. That is, all tenses have a basic meaning, but also take on derivative/secondary meanings. The secondary nature of his examples is pretty obvious. “Metallic potassium will explode in contact with water” is obviously a quasi-condition: “it will explode if they come into contact”. If this invalidates the “futurity” of “will”, then by that argument we have no simple past tense, either. Take “if I won, I’d give the money to the poor” (said upon buying a lottery ticket and hence referring to an unlikely hypothesis about the future) or “if I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die” (denial of a present circumstance, from a stupid song). In both instances, the simple past is used to refer to a situation that ex hypothesi cannot refer to the past. Does this mean that English has no simple past tense or that “I won” or “I had” don’t normally refer to the past? Clearly not.

    The meanings of repetition and probability that Pullum cites for the future are clearly secondary (and are easy enough to attest in other languages). For example, a sentence like “he’ll say anything to get out of trouble” makes a statement about expected future action to state a general tendency (presumably you can only say this is he did so repeatedly in the past), and this then gives rise to phrases like “they’re hopeless-they’ll argue and argue about something without ever coming to a decision”, which is clearly an “absolute” state of generality without any specific future event. Like “that will be Bob” said when guess who just rang the doorbell obviously means “one we find the truth, it will turn out to be Bob”. When it comes to such “secondary” usages, they shouldn’t be taken as invalidating the “regular” sense of the form. Instead, this is an aspect of “functional” grammar, which studies how exactly the regular forms are used in *context of discourse* to signify meaning.

    Finally, does “will” sometimes show some vestigial hint of its etymologically original meaning “want”? Yes, it does (e.g., “I won’t”=”I refuse”). Does this negate the regular use of it to mark straightforward futurity? No, it doesn’t, no more than the fact that “werden” is clearly the verb “to become” undermines the fact that it is used to mark the future operation of a verb in the infinitive in German.

    While what Pullum cites is interesting, it shouldn’t obscure the basic realities. Sometimes academics will lose sight of the trees for the leaves. Oh, wait a minute, I mean “lose”, not “will lose”. My bad.

  62. I’m afraid if you want me to read that long a comment you would do better to start off by not completely misreading Geoff Pullum.
    Pullum had a post recently in which he argues that even a phrase as seemingly self-evident as “Goddamn America” can’t be interpreted out of context because in some contexts a given phrase can be used to mean different things.
    No, he argues the exact opposite.
    I have heard a lot of people who have made incredibly damning statements but think that if they just mouth the talismanic phrase “it was taken out of context”, and nothing more, it gives them a sort of get-out-of-disgrace-free card… For the most part, “damn America” cannot mean “bless America”. And if anyone wants to suggest that nonetheless in a certain context (the very one in which the original utterance occurred) it can, then they do have to answer Sowell’s question.
    So: A for effort; better luck next time.

  63. Richard Hershberger says

    I got a bit further, to the argument that there is a future tense as shown by native speakers using the form “will be”, which they do because it is the future tense.
    Up to that point the argument actually made sense: that a translated text is not necessarily representative of normal usage. I think it misinterpret’s what Pullum was doing. He was using the text as a rhetorical hook, not as proof. But the point is still valid.
    But then I got to the “will be” argument and found this too tight a circle for my turning radius.

  64. Well, I read it and I think KS makes the point I have been trying to make. Which is that when you define tense (or in this case the future tense) so narrowly — it must be morphological, it must be consistent, it must not have any additional information like volition or intention, it must not have many secondary meanings, etc. — there would be a relatively few, I would think, languages that meet the requirements. So you have a definition of tense that applies to — what — a quarter of the world’s languages? So the rest have “expressions of time?” What’s the use of that?
    The other reason I have trouble with this is that Russian has one word for both “tense” and “time.” So saying “Russian has no tense, but it has time” turns out to be nonsensical: В русском нет времени, но есть время.

  65. What’s the use of that?
    To have clear technical definitions. It’s obvious what people mean when they talk about English having a future tense, and nobody’s saying they should stop, but linguists, like other scientists, need narrowly defined terms, and it doesn’t really matter what percentage of the world’s languages they apply to. (Hell, very few of the world’s languages have a voiceless dental fricative like English th in think, but that doesn’t make it a less valuable phoneme.)

  66. michael farris says

    My understanding of Slavic tense/aspect system (mostly based on Polish but similar in all the northern slavic languages I think). Warning: this will make many Slavicists or traditional grammarians’ hair stand on end, but it works for me. This is the extremely simplified version.
    Aspect – This is actually part of the lexical structure of the verb. So, Polish czekać (wait, imp) and zaczekać (wait, perf) are really best thought of as two separate verbs. Learning most verbs in terms of ‘aspect pairs’ for verbs is, for non-native speakers, like isometrics – it’s a strain and it gets you nowhere. Really, don’t waste your time, you’ll learn when it’s important, otherwise don’t bother (whatever you do, don’t go learning tons of verbs in the imperfective and then memorizing the perfective counterparts). The verb ‘to be’ (to the extent that it is used) straddles both categories).
    Tense – Slavic verbs have several forms:
    1. Simple tense. Depending on what aspect class the verb falls under (and other contextual factors) this will be translated as present, past or future. For imperfective verbs this is usually presentish for perfective verbs (shorn of context) futurish but nothing is absolute.
    2. Past base. Depending on the language this serves as the whole tense (Russian, Ukrainian) part of a larger analytic structure (Czech, Slovak) or part of a larger morphological tense (Polish).
    3. Conditional (not discussed further here)
    4. Imperative (not discussed further here)
    5. Future tense – only imperfective verbs have this. An analytic structure made up of a form of the verb ‘to be’ (the simple tense in Polish, the ‘future’ form in other Slavic languages) which is inflected for person and number and (depending on language and dialect) either the infinitive or the past base. Will sometimes be translated as a conditional in English but is _always_ future in orientation either from the time of speaking or from a specific point of time in the past.
    In contrast, English has two morphological finite forms:
    1. a habitual/gnomic tense (“simple present”)
    2. a past
    It also has:
    1. A number of analytic tenses using ‘be’ and a gerund/present-participle thingy or ‘have’ and a past participle or both.
    2. A number of true modal constructions which refer to different time periods (depending on modal and context).
    3. A number of modal-like constructions some of which are more tense-like (going to) and some of which are more modal like (ought to).
    4. Some other harder to classify structures (used to, ‘be to’ etc)

  67. “Oh, sock! Please come back. Your partner is looking for you.” [said at laundry time]
    is this not vocative?

  68. Sorry to post twice. I forgot I wanted to ask something else:
    I’m moderately familiar with Biblical Hebrew. Can the same thing that Pullum is saying about English be said (mutatis mutandis, I know!) about BH? There are prefixes that could be said to be markers of future tense, but sometimes they convey other things (e.g. with the consecutive vav).
    In short, does BH have a future tense? My guess is no, but I’m no linguist.

  69. marie-lucie says

    A morphological definition (based on the form taken by a certain type of word) does not restrict the meaning of the form, just as a morphological description of a certain word (eg it includes a certain prefix or suffix) does not mean that it has to have the same meaning in all circumstances, hence for instance the use of a past tense form with non-past meaning after if (the use of the past tense cancels any interpretation of the verb as referring to something existing or still possible).
    In many cases it is possible to identify a basic meaning (sometimes the original, historical meaning, as in the OED), sometimes not. Our erudite commenter grants that will shows some traces of its original want meaning but seems to derive its other meanings from the future one: I think that it is more likely that those other meanings have evolved separately from the future one, which just happens to be more prominent at this particular time in the history of the language (80% according to Pullum’s statistics). For instance, to my (non-native) mind potassium will explode etc is not an if-then statement but more like potassium has a way of exploding … (as if from its own will), a statement of general behaviour, not an equivalent of potassium is going to explode.
    Here are two more reasons not to consider [will + verb] a ‘tense’ like the present (rather, non-past) and the past:
    – One peculiarity of Modern English (as opposed to, for instance, Shakespearian English) is that the auxiliary do (or its past tense form did) is needed in order to form a question or a negative sentence (and also a reply): Did you see that? – No, I did not [see it] / -Yes, I did [see it]. This happens unless there is another auxiliary in the sentence: Can you see that? – No, I can’t/Yes, I can. Will always behaves like the auxiliary that it is: you have to say Will you do that?, never *Do you will-do that? or *I don’t will-do that (the asterisk means that the sentence is “ungrammatical”, in the sense that no English speaker would say such as thing). So the future construction does not behave in the same way as the true tenses (which behave in parallel fashion) but its auxiliary shares the behaviour of all the other auxiliaries.
    I will do it expresses an intention, and so does I am going to do it, but Close the door, will you does not mean Close the door, are you going to?: only the latter indicates the future, while will you is equivalent to the more formal if you will, originally meaning if you are willing. (Note that [going to + verb] reliably indicates the future, but [will + verb] does not in 20% of cases (see Pullum) – therefore it would seem more logical to consider going to the future marker in contemporary English, rather than will).

  70. marie-lucie says

    (LH, did you impose a limit on length? I had written more but it does not show up).
    Here is more or less what else I had written:
    Linguistic analysis is not a totally cut-and-dried business and sometimes there can be conflict between different interpretations of the same phenomena. Languages spoken now are the continuation of centuries and millennia of evolution, often in unpredictable ways. There are “fossils” (eg the plural of some nouns as in mouse/mice or the past tense of some verbs as in is/was) and there are areas which are actively changing. Sometimes form and function or meaning go together, sometimes new forms, functions or meanings develop from older ones and compete with others. Expressing the future seems to be one area where there has been movement for centuries in the English language. Linguists (trying to understand how a language is put together) tend to follow form, as form is easier to pinpoint and leads to fewer contradictions than function or meaning. Speakers tend to follow meaning, which they are conscious of, while form is something they rarely think about (and even more rarely outside of specific contexts). Hence the differing viewpoints expressed in this thread: nobody is wrong.

  71. Thanks, Hat; yeah, I get that Pullum et al are trying to come up with an exact technical definition. As I wrote, since Russian has one word for “tense” and “time” (expressions of time), it’s hard for me to separate the two. Also, I gather that this theory is not set in granite; it seems that many other linguists don’t agree with the definition and conclusion, for pretty much the same reasons that have been aired here. But in any case, I’ve managed to learn a lot (while successfully avoiding some boring work), which one can rarely say about blogging. So thanks.
    Michael, I can’t agree with your description, but I DO agree that the way we foreigners are taught Slavic languages — the verb pairs — is not effective. I could only “get” the dread verbs of motion when I defined each verb separately. I dream of coming up with a different way of presenting and teaching them. BTW, there is an interesting book called Mental Grammar: Russian Aspect and Related Issues by Per Durst-Andersen that is helpful and interesting, although somewhat mind-numbing.

  72. does BH have a future tense?
    I’m pretty sure the answer is no, though I’m no expert either. But I confess I don’t really understand the Hebrew verbal system.
    Sorry to post twice
    If multiple postings were a crime, John Emerson would be doing hard time. Don’t worry about it.
    LH, did you impose a limit on length? I had written more but it does not show up)
    I don’t think so, it’s probably some Movable Type thing. If I had to set all the parameters of this blog, I’d never have started doing it.
    I’ve managed to learn a lot (while successfully avoiding some boring work)
    Same here!
    I dream of coming up with a different way of presenting and teaching them.
    I’d love to read it if you do. Those things are definitely a stumbling block, and I’m still far from certain of my footing.
    BTW, there is an interesting book called Mental Grammar: Russian Aspect and Related Issues by Per Durst-Andersen
    Thanks for the tip, I’ll have to look for it.

  73. Keyser Söze says

    Yeah, you’re right about the “out of context” bit. KS wrote in haste and the rhetorical “in” was wrong. For this KS duly acknowledges fault and humbly solicits forgiveness. (As an explanation–but not an excuse–the “out of context” posting meanders a bit and KS glanced over it and got the wrong impression. Uh oh!) But then you indicate that you won’t read the rest of KS’s long post because of the error. Just because there’s a mistake in something that’s irrelevant to the argument doesn’t necessarily invalidate the rest of the argument, does it? But KS does see how it starts things off on a bad footing! 🙂

  74. mab,
    I’m avoiding the affix question. I think it’s a trap.
    You dug the pit 🙂
    In short, does BH have a future tense? My guess is no, but I’m no linguist.
    I was afraid of that question, though I’m surprised that it wasn’t brought up sooner.
    In short: in Semitic languages, the concept of ‘tense’ is pretty much useless. Even traditional grammars speak of ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect’, terms which are usually reserved for speaking of the past in relative terms. Vav-consecutivum is a particularly good example of the uselessness of the concept of ‘tense’, so is Arabic conditional (idha/law + perfect).
    great analysis. I especially like the ‘Simple tense’ bit. As for its future meaning (with both perfective and imperfective verbs), I was ready to write it off as some literary device, but in the last 24 hours, I heard a number of examples in both standard Slovak and dialect. My favorite even managed to demolish a hastily created hypothesis according to which for a simple tense to refer to past events, the clause must include some sort of reference to past. There is none in the example below, the only reference to the past was made by speaker A.
    A: Ako to včera dopadlo? (How did you do yesterday? – referring to some legal proceedings)
    B: Ani sa nepýtaj. Prídem tam, oni vytiahnu zmluvu, že vraj podľa článku 7 nemám nárok, ja im hovorím, že blbosť a že sa uvidíme na súde.
    (Don’t even ask. I came in, they pulled out the contract and said that pursuant to article 7 I had no claim and I said that’s bullshit and I’ll see you in court).
    Prídem, vytiahnu – both perfective verbs in simple tense, referring to the past.
    Hovorím – imperfective verb in the simple tense, referring to the past.
    Uvidíme sa – perfective verb in the simple tense referring to relative (from the point of the reproduced conversation) and absolute (from the point of the actual conversation between A and B I overheard) future.

  75. michael farris says

    (blush) and possibly related, I was just shopping and saw the front page of the tabloid Fakt.
    As it understatedly says, ‘Dziś umrze Jezus za nasze grzechy’. (Today Jesus dies for our sins) with the perfective umrze which would normally be translated ‘will die’. .
    Not being Catholic I don’t know if that’s a normal thing to say on good Friday and what the English equivalent would be. I’m sure it’s wouldn’t be ‘will die’.
    And AFAICT in that context imperfective ‘umiera’ would sound all wrong as if he had a terminal disease.
    If I had more time I’d spend some time trying to figure out how time reference works for perfective verbs in the simple tense. It’s not just ‘future’ as the textbooks so unhelpfully say.
    Quick, tenative hypothesis, when you substitute simple tense instead of past (for immediacy or other stylistic effects) aspect remains unchanged.

  76. @ Keyser Söze: “While what Pullum cites is interesting, it shouldn’t obscure the basic realities. Sometimes academics will lose sight of the trees for the leaves.”
    I think it’s Keyser Söze who is losing sight of the trees. Michael Farris (above) gives a very succinct and very accurate representation of the English tense system. There are only two simple tenses, “present” (which doesn’t necessarily refer to present time — Michael rightly calls it “habitual/gnomic tense”) and “past”.
    The “basic realities” that Keyser Söze is talking about are the a priori decision (that I discussed above) to have a division into “past – present – future”. It’s this stubborn insistence on finding this division in natural language that obscures the reality of the English language. “Analytical tense”? “Synthetic tense”? These are merely attempts to force language into a particular mould rather than figure out what language itself is doing. It’s really a type of prescriptivism, as opposed to a scientific description of language.
    Incidentally, Pullum’s post is highly confusing. You have to read Huddleston in order to properly understand the argument against a future tense in English.

  77. As for its future meaning (with both perfective and imperfective verbs), I was ready to write it off as some literary device, but in the last 24 hours, I heard a number of examples in both standard Slovak and dialect. My favorite even managed to demolish a hastily created hypothesis according to which for a simple tense to refer to past events, the clause must include some sort of reference to past.
    That’s why I love linguistics—the field of study is so complex and ever-changing you can never get bored! (Of course, you have to be willing to allow the evidence to demolish your hypotheses instead of using the Procrustean/Chomskyan bed to twist it to fit.)

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