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Very often, the verb system of English, and maybe also of other languages, is described under the aspect of time. In German, this even finds its expression in the grammar term ‘Zeiten’ for different verb structures. Though not completely incorrect, this creates a focus that places too much emphasis on ‘time’, thereby giving learners of English a distorted perspective on the various aspects and/or meanings of verb structures.
In English we don’t speak of ‘times’, but of tenses. However, the semantics of the term are not completely clear. In linguistics – the science and study of language – you find one strict definition of ‘tense’ restricting it to the morphological change of a verb in reference to time. In more common use, the term ‘tense’ refers to almost all verb structure of English thereby linking them semantically strongly to aspects of time. Though this is indeed often the case, the problems arise from a lack of clarity in what we mean by ‘time’.
In addition, one of the most basic structures is used when time is NOT an issue, when we make general statements about recurring things or scientific facts, to name just a few. However, we call this form the ‘simple present tense’. (For a detailed discussion, go to my pages on the Verb Structure Circle, especially the introduction. Here you also find a detailed description of the structures, functions and meanings of the four basic verb forms in English: the two simple forms ‘present’ and ‘past’, the continuous, and the perfect forms.)
Talking about the past in English is structurally fairly regular: verb+ed. The irregular forms are very frequent and easily memorized. But when it comes to talking about the future, things become more complex. Even though our memories might fail us or we might want to lie, factuality is at least semantically possible when our time reference is the past. The future, in contrast, is a great unknown and as such there cannot – IMHO – be any grammatical form in any language that expresses only future time without any other semantic addition.
Would we say something like: The sun explodes in a billion years? Or: the sun is exploding soon? Sounds wrong or strange. Since we cannot know for sure, we would not express a scientific claim like the above about a future event with a fixed lexically expressed time reference using the simple ‘present’ or first form. Therefore we find that many sentences referring to future events, activities etc. use modal verb constructions, or the progressive, but not the simple form. We would not combine the simple present with a lexically expressed future time reference, which is why sentences like those below (?’I don’t come today’) sound unnatural.
Why then can we and do we use the first form with time tables and schedules where a future time reference is stated? Maybe because the aspect of futurity is not the point with a schedule, any schedule like a bus or train schedule for instance. The schedule is about general facts: when a train is determined to arrive or leave, every day, with weekend and holiday variations, it’s not about the future.
What other forms and/or words can we use to talk about future events? What type of sentences have a future time reference due to their ‘semantic nature’? And, again, what’s wrong with the following sentence:
*I have another meeting later and don’t come today.
Which one/s sound more natural, which one/s would we not say:
a) I won’t be coming next week
b) I won’t come next week.
c) I’m not coming next week.
d) I don’t come next week..
Questions and exercises
Talking about the future
- What would you say if you wanted to tell someone about your plans for next year’s holiday?
- Tell someone about your plans for the evening. You have everything planned and arranged.
- Talk about your plans for the evening. You are not yet sure what you want to do.
- How would you express plans you had, but had to change?
- Speculate about future developments at work.
- How would you give someone advice as to what to do because of a computer problem; a tooth ache; a lost credit card, a deadline they can’t meet, a concert they would like to go to, but can’t get any tickets to anymore.
- Promise someone to give them a ring tomorrow.
- You want to tell friends that you intend to build a house once you receive a big inheritance you expect some time. What could you say?
- Speculate where you will be this time in six weeks (or any other time)
- Someone asks you for the next bus. Give them the information they require.
- You booked a trip for the weekend.Talk about it.
- You intend to do your Christmas/food/party shopping when?
Go to the internet and find out what the presenters of weather forecasts say.