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There is no future … in English tense

By Curtis Honeycutt

There is no future. Feel free to go back to bed now.

You probably think I’m referring to the fact that we recently took a picture of a black hole, or maybe that climate change is happening at such a rapid pace it seems as if our planet is a lost cause. Or, maybe you’re concerned about who is (or isn’t) in an elected office, pervasive hatred, ongoing inequality, the increased loneliness indirectly caused by technology, or that — in any movie about robots that takes place in the future — robots inevitably destroy humanity. It doesn’t take a flux capacitor to realize the future depends on our present actions.

Whoa, that’s tense.

Actually, I don’t want to talk about the future today. I’d like to discuss the future tense, which, in English, technically doesn’t exist. According to Bas Aarts (which I promise isn’t a name I invented by throwing random Scrabble tiles on the ground), author of Oxford Modern English Grammar, “English has no future tense, because it has no future tense inflections, in the way that many other languages do, nor any other grammatical form or combination of forms that can exclusively be called a future tense.”

When we learn Latin, Spanish, or French in high school, we learn all the first, second and third person verb conjugations in past, present and future tense inflections. English only has one way to express tense with inflections (word endings), and that’s in the past tense. When we add -ed to a verb like “punt,” it becomes a past tense verb. I punted the ball onto my neighbor’s roof. We have no future inflections in English.

What about “will?” I knew you’d ask. In a sentence like “I will go to the gym tomorrow,” “will” serves as a modal verb, which is an auxiliary verb that expresses necessity or possibility. Other modal verbs are words like shall, can, may and could.

In grammar, there’s an important distinction between tense and time. Tense is a grammatical term that is directly tied to a verb’s inflection. Time is a human construct by which we base our reality. In that construct, we have three times — the past, present and future. When we use “will” with a verb, we are expressing future time, but we are not technically making something future tense.

If you ask me, it won’t be the future until our flying cars are powered by trash. So, until then, I’m sending good grammar wishes to all my fellow word nerds.

— Curtis Honeycutt is a nationally award-winning syndicated humor writer. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.

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