Future tense vanishing from English?
Well, yes, English does have a well defined future tense that continues to be prescribed by the grammar nazis throughout the world with no relaxation whatsoever. However, if you notice its usage in regular conversations, perhaps you’d understand that this tense is slowly and steadily vanishing from the scene. Really? Well, actually, English doesn’t even have a true future tense, per se!
The very first hint in this direction is the fact that there exists no verb form for the future tense in English. We rely, instead, on the word, “will,” which is just a modal prop used in combination with the present tense forms to describe future actions. There are, in fact, eight ways to express a future event in English:
- Prediction – She will sleep
- Prediction – She will have slept
- Prediction – She will be sleeping
- Prediction – She will have been sleeping
- Factual assertion – She sleeps tomorrow
- Plan – She is going to sleep tomorrow
- Plan – She is sleeping soon
- Resolution – She shall sleep
If you study the above eight sentences closely, you’d easily notice that none of them uses any future tense verb form despite being future tense sentences themselves. They only at most use the modal props, “will” and “shall.” Some even go to the extent of completely doing away with these props and using the present tense alone to describe future actions.
The future of Spanish
The same evolutionary disappearance of the future verb forms that we observed in English above is also at work in Spanish, albeit, at a much larger scale. In Spanish this tense has all but vanished from day-to-day conversations – almost. So, at least for rookie learners, it won’t be much of a problem if they just shelve covering this tense until a later stage in their Spanish language program. But, can one completely do away with this tense? Not really. So, how does one know where it can be dispensed with and where it can’t?
Well, here’s the deal. You use the present tense in Spanish whenever discussing future plans or facts. Whenever you describe an event seen as obvious or factual, you would do well with the present tense. Often, when you are discussing a plan for future, you’d roll up your verb in a small ball with the equivalent of “going to” stuck to the present tense. We often do this in English too but the only difference is that it’s way more prevalent, and the norm, in Spanish. Here is an illustration:
Mañana se va (tomorrow, she leaves)
We often do this in English but we also use the “will” (tomorrow she will leave) form quite frequently. But in Spanish, this is the only form used if you are reasonably sure of the fact that she’ll leave tomorrow. If, however, you do use the future tense in Spanish, it won’t hurt but will alter the meaning in a very subtle way:
Mañana irá (she will leave tomorrow)
To your English ears, this sentence might ring no different from the one before. But to a native Spanish speaker, the last sentence sounds more like an assumption or a supposition that she might leave. Here, you are stating a fact that will hopefully turn out true if your assumptions are right. Though this difference in meaning is too subtle to be easily appreciated, it’s not really alien to English either. Imagine how you’d answer if I asked you what your friend was doing. Here too, there are two ways you could answer even in English. If you’re fairly sure, you could say something like, “He is sleeping.” You’re stating a fact here. But if you are not really sure but assuming that he must be asleep, you can say, “He will be sleeping.” Note that both these sentences are indicating an action in the present tense but in the second one, “will” slightly alters the certainty of the stated fact. This is what happens with Spanish. You use the present tense whenever you are stating a fact with conviction but the future tense wherever a supposition is being made.
|Universal facts, like the sunrise, are best expressed using the present tense|
Photo credit: BY-YOUR-⌘ licensed CC BY 2.0
Mañana el sol sale por el este (tomorrow, the Sun rises in the East)
Mañana el sol saldrá por el este (tomorrow, the Sun will rise in the East)
While in English, either of the above constructs is colloquially sound. But, when it comes to Spanish, you’re more likely to hear the first. Why? Because it’s a fact and there’s no guesswork at play here! Whenever you talk about the Sun’s rising in the East, you talk with conviction. It’s a universal fact. The second sentence using the future tense conjugation makes it sound like your assumption. You don’t assume that the Sun will rise in the East; you just know it!
It’s all about certainty
So, facts take the present tense and assumptions, the future. What about plans? They are neither facts nor vague assumptions! Well, these are, again, best expressed using the present tense but with a twist. You stick a “going to” with the verb and you’re good:
Mañana voy a comer con ella (Tomorrow, I am going to eat with her)
You are fairly determined to eat with her and that’s why, a future tense shouldn’t be invoked to ruin your certainty. However, since your plan is still just in the pipeline, you’d be better off wrapping it with a “going to.” This step is not compulsory, though, and even the following sentence will do just fine:
Mañana como con ella (Tomorrow, I eat with her)
The last example, of course, does lend a greater degree of certainty to your plans and implies that you are quite determined to execute them. Which of the last two constructs you choose should ideally just be a function of your prerogative and circumstances.
so, what’s the moral of this story? It’s simple. Just use the present tense when discussing future events for all practical purposes unless you are even a wee bit doubtful of the event in question. And whether you use “going to” or just do with a simple present tense (also called, present indicative) construct, is absolutely up to you. Let’s summarize this for a quick reference:
Present indicative with “going to” – Quite certain (I am going to meet her tomorrow)
Present indicative without “going to” – Even more certain (I meet her tomorrow)
Future – Supposition or assumption; not quite certain (I will meet her tomorrow)
That’s the trick – No more cramming up on the future tense conjugations at least for the time being! Enjoy!