10. Ways of Expressing the Future




 Many students, even at an advanced level, express futurity in English in less than natural ways. This is frequently caused by conflicting ideas they have picked up during their learning careers from course books, grammars – and some teachers.


In this paper we show that there is an underlying simplicity in the ways in which we can express futurity in English. There are, indeed, several different ways to talk about future situations, but the choice before the speaker is governed not  by arbitrary ‘rules’  but simply by what he or she would like to express. In order to understand the system, it will be necessary to dispose of three misleading ideas that many students, and even some teachers, appear to believe.  These are that:

 WILL forms the Future Tense in English.

  BE GOING TO indicates a plan, and the Present Continuous an arrangement.

  One, and only one, way of expressing the future is ‘correct’ in any particular context.


As we shall see in the next few pages, the reality of how to express futurity is made much less problematic if we understand the reality:


  • There is no Future Tense in English. WILL is one of the modals, all of which can           express futurity:


  • BE GOING TO does not indicate a plan. It is hard to imagine who or what might be planning anything in such utterances as:


Look at those clouds. It’s going to rain.

George is a terrible driver. He’s going to have an accident one day.


  • There is often more than one possible correct way to express futurity. For  example in this utterance:


Emma … (fly)… to London next week,


if we have no further contextual evidence, we can ‘fill the gap’ with any or all of the following: flies/is flying/is going to fly/will fly/will be flying/will have flown/is to fly, not to mention such possibilities as: wants/hopes/expects/etc to fly.


 1.    A Future Tense in English?


 If we mean by the word tense ‘inflected term’, then it should be clear that there are only two such forms in English, the Present Simple and the Past Simple. Such forms as the Progressive (or Continuous) and Perfect, formed with an auxiliary are more usefully considered as aspects; and futurity is more usefully considered with such concepts as certainty and intention. There is no Future Tense as such in English, simply a number of ways in which we can speak about future situations.  In the following sections, we shall consider the most important of these ways.



2. BE (do)ING and BE GOING TO (do)


 2.1. The Present Progressive (/Present Continuous)


A better name for this aspect might be durative, as it is used when he speaker wishes to indicate that the situation spoken of has duration, and that that duration is limited, i.e. it has a beginning and end. Precisely when the beginning and end are may not be important, but the fact that they are there, and are not considered remote in time are important. Consider these three utterances:


  1. I am writing some notes on the English Future[1].
  2. The number 22 tram is running through Flora this week.
  3. I am meeting my wife at the pub this evening.


In [1], the limited duration of the writing is clearly understood from the context, (as is, incidentally, the fact that the action is going on at the moment of speaking).

In [2], the known context of the normal route of the 22 tram (which does not pass through Flora) confirms the limited duration of he situation. Incidentally, it is perfectly correct for this to be said at 3 a.m., when no number 22 tram is actually running.

I, the speaker, can say [3] because I know that my wife and I arranged the meeting this morning. The arrangement to meet has limited duration – it began this morning and ends when we actually meet. Considered this way, it can be useful to think of the Progressive form as indicating an arrangement. 


If an arrangement of limited duration is what the speaker has in mind, then the example given in the introduction will be realized as:


            Emma is flying to London next week.




Forms with BE GOING TO possibly originated in such utterances as:


  1. We are going to meet George at the stadium,


uttered when we were literally going, i.e. on the way, to the meeting. At the moment of speaking there was present evidence of the future meeting. This use has become extended to embrace any action for which there is present evidence – things do not have to be literally moving.  Consider now these two utterances:


  1. Look at those black clouds. It’s going to snow.
  2. Pat is going to fly to Phuket next week.


In [5] the present evidence is clear – the black clouds. In [6], the present evidence may be the flight ticket that Pat has just shown the speaker, or it may simply be the knowledge in the speaker’s mind that s/he has somehow acquired. This explains why, when the grammatical subject of the verb is capable of planning, there may be little practical difference between the use of the ‘Progressive’ form and the BE GOING TO form. However, with a grammatical subject incapable of planning, there is a difference:


3.   I am meeting my wife at the pub this evening.

3a. I am going to meet my wife at the pub this evening.

7. It’s going to snow.

7a. It’s snowing.

7b. *It’s snowing tomorrow.



In [3] the speaker has made the arrangement. In [3a] the speaker may have made the arrangement (the present evidence), he/she may just have been informed by his wife (the present evidence), or may have recently made a plan (the present evidence). The circumstances surrounding the situations in [3] and [3a] differ, but the practical result is the same; the speaker has free choice between the two forms.  Neither is ‘better, ‘more appropriate’ or ‘more correct’.


In [7], the present evidence is something like the presence of black clouds, or the speaker’s knowledge of the weather forecast. In [7a], it is impossible for an arrangement to be made for future snow, and therefore the Progressive form used here cannot be referring to future arrangement. The context will therefore inform us that snow is actually falling as the utterance is made. The addition of a time-indicator cannot make the impossible possible, and [7b] is therefore not a possible utterance.


We have seen above that if an arrangement of limited duration is what the speaker has in mind, then the example given in the introduction will be realised as:


            Emma is flying to London next week.


We can now say that if the speaker has present evidence of next week’s flight, then the example will be realized as


            Emma is going to fly to London next week.


The preceding paragraphs help to explain why, in gap-fill exercises, students sometimes come up with a ‘wrong’ answer, i.e. a different one from that expected by the teacher or compiler of the exercise. In real life, the speaker is trying to say what s/he wants to say; in gap-fill exercises, the student is trying to guess what the compiler would have said in a context that is not made sufficiently clear.


In the following sections we shall consider the implications of other ways of expressing the future. We should clearly remember, however, that what you or I might wish to say in a particular situation may well be different from what somebody else might wish to say. In the situation of Emma flying to London, we have already seen two possible ‘correct’ utterances. There will be more to come – the range is almost endless. As the actual context becomes more explicit, this range may become narrower, but we should not assume that there is always only one ‘correct’ utterance or that certain utterances are inevitably impossible.



3.  Present Simple


 In English, as in many Indo-European languages, the so-called ‘Present’ tense functions more like a default tense; it is used when there is no need for any additional temporal or aspectual information carried by other forms. The time of the situation denoted by the present simple tense of the verb can be past [8], present [9], ‘general’ [10] or future [11]:

 8.     Jane tells me you’ve not been too well since you got back.

9.     My stomach hurts.

10. I never drink alone.

11. The UN General Assembly opens in New York late this month.


Thus, in our example of Emma’s flight, if we imagine the speaker mentally seeing Emma’s schedule and presenting a neutral fact, without any of the overtones suggested by other ways of expressing the future the realization will be:


Emma flies to London next week.


 The futurity is shown by the context or by explicit time-markers.  


 4. WILL


 WILL is a modal and, like the other modals, has two core meanings. The two modal meanings are


(a) the ‘extrinsic’ meaning, referring to the probability of the event/state

(b) the ‘intrinsic’ meaning, reflecting such concepts as: ability, necessity,

obligation, necessity, permission, possibility, volition, etc.


The extrinsic meaning of WILL is exemplified in:

 12.  Luke left three hours ago, so he will be in London by now.

13.  There will be hotels on the moon within the next 50 years.

14. T he afternoon will be bright and sunny, though there may be rain in the north.  


In all three examples, the speaker suggests 100% probability, i.e. absolute certainty. (MAY would imply possibility, MUST logical certainty, to take examples of two other modals). Note that while certainty in [13] and [14] is about the future, in [12] it is about the present. It is the absolute certainty, in the minds of speaker/writer and listener/reader, that can give the impression that forms using ‘the WILL future’ are some way of presenting ‘the future as fact’. Some writers therefore call this form ‘the Future Simple’. Weather forecasters, writers of business/scientific reports, deliverers of presentations, etc, frequently use WILL, and students who encounter more English through reading native writers than hearing native speakers informally may assume that it is a ‘neutral’ or ‘formal’ future.  In fact the particular native writer or speaker is simply opting to stress certainty rather than arrangement, plan or present evidence.


The intrinsic meaning of WILL is exemplified in:


  1. I’ll carry your bag for you.
  2. Will you drive me to the airport, please?
  3. Peter will leave his mobile switched on in meetings. It’s so annoying when it rings.


These examples show what we might loosely call volition, the willingness or determination of the subject of the modal to carry out the action. Note that [17] is not about the future, and in [15] and [16] the futurity is incidental. It is context rather than words which gives the meaning.


So, our original example can clearly be realized as:


Emma will fly to London next week.


Without expanded context or co-text, we cannot be sure of what is implied by Emma will fly to London next week. If the background has been that she is scheduled to fly next month, but there is an urgent need for her to be in London soon, the speaker of this utterance is indicating Emma’s willingness to fly earlier than intended.  In a different context, known to both speaker and listener, the speaker is indicating the certainty of Emma’s flight tomorrow, possibly even because of the speaker’s own volition. Outside the context of gap-fill exercises this is not a problem.


5. WILL BE (do)ING (‘Future Progressive’).


 WILL BE ….-ING can have two possible overtones, both stemming from the combination of the ideas of certainty (WILL) and limited duration (progressive form).


The first possibility is that the speaker is describing a situation already begun, having duration, and not completed by the time mentioned or implied. This would be explicit in:


  1. At 5 o’clock tomorrow George will be driving down the M1.


The second possibility is that the speaker is more concerned with the pure certainty of the action happening than any volitional aspect that might be implied by the use of WILL by itself.  This idea can be illustrated more clearly in the following examples. If someone says I’d like to know what Andrea thinks about this, responses might be:


  1. I’ll see her tomorrow; I’ll ask her.
  2. I’m seeing her tomorrow. I’ll ask her.
  3. I’m going to see her tomorrow. I’ll ask her.  
  4. I’ll be seeing her tomorrow. I’ll ask her.


In all four examples, the I’ll ask her indicates the speaker’s willingness (confirmed by the context)  In the first half of the utterance, [19] indicates the speaker’s willingness to see her, [20] the speaker’s knowledge of an arrangement already made to see her, [21] the speaker’s awareness of present evidence of the future meeting and [22] the speaker’s simple presentation of the fact of the future meeting. It is claimed by some writers, with some justification, that the use of WILL BE ….-ING implies, by its lack of reference to intention, volition or arrangement, a ‘casual’ future.


So, the realization of our standard example can be:


Emma will be flying to London tomorrow.


Depending on the context and co-text, the speaker may be intending a ‘casual’ futurity, or may be indicating a situation in progress at a particular time.



Which Form?



The approach to ways of expressing to futurity outlined in the sections above means that students are far freer to choose for themselves the future form they wish than may appear in some grammars and course books. Far more possible utterances are acceptable than is implied by many gap-fill exercises. However, this is not to suggest that all this is given to the student in one 30-minute “here’s the truth about the future” class. All that is suggested here is that the choice of future form is less arbitrary than sometimes appears, and that teachers aware of this can refrain from over-simple ‘rules’ that may soon confuse the student.


7. Other ways of referring to the future



So far in this paper we have considered the five ways of referring to the future that are considered by some to be ‘tense’ forms: Present Progressive, Present Simple, BE GOING TO, WILL, and ‘Future Continuous’. There are many other ways of referring to future situations, each with its own particular shade of meaning. Some of these are considered briefly in the following pages:


7.1. BE + to + infinitive


This form is not common in informal conversation. It refers to something that is to happen in the future as a plan or decree, normally by some authority other than the subject of the sentence:

 23.  A new theatre is to be built in Andover next year.

 It is common in news reports. In headlines; BE is frequently omitted:

 24.  Brown to see Obama


7.2. BE + about to+ infinitive


This form is used to refer to planned future events that are expected to happen soon:

 25.  300 workers at the Manchester factory are about to lose their jobs.

 The soon-ness often carries the idea that the subject is very close to the point of doing something:

 26.  He looks as if he’s about to turn nasty.


 7.3. Other idioms with BE


There are a number of other expressions with BE which have some form of modal-type meaning (ability, obligation, etc), and which point to the future. These include: be able to, be bound to, be certain to, be due to, be likely to/that, be meant to, be obliged to, be supposed to, be sure to.



7.4. Idioms with HAVE


Expressions with HAVE include have (got) to, had better, also with have some form of modal-type meaning (necessity,  obligation, etc), pointing to the future.

 27.   We’d better get that sorted out tomorrow.


 7.5. Other modals


Apart from WILL, discussed in section 4, the other modals are also used with future reference:

 28.  Do you think you may go skiing again next Easter?  (possibility)

29.  There might be a few objections to our holiday proposals. (more remote possibility)

30.  Can you cope with the kids this afternoon? (ability/possibility)

31.  She could leave tomorrow, we’re not sure. (more remote ability/possibility)

32.  You must be ready to leave by five at the latest. (obligation)

33.  I shall be here all evening. (certainty)

34.  Frank should tell Mary before he leaves this evening. (recommendation)


Expressions with WOULD with have some form of quasi-modal meaning (preference), pointing to the future include: would rather, would sooner, would just as soon.



7.6. Verb (+ to) + infinitive


Some full verbs, such as hope or want, indicate that the action of the complement verb will be in the future (expressing future possibilities). Such verbs are usually followed by the to-infinitive:

 35.  He hoped to sell his house before the end of the month.


Examples include: agree, ask*, allow*, aspire, attempt, cause*, choose, consent, dare*, decide, decline, encourage* expect*, hope, instruct*, intend*, offer, mean*, need*, permit*, persuade* plan, prepare, promise, propose, swear, remember, tell*, threaten, try, want*, warn*, wish*


Some verbs (e.g. those marked with an asterisk above) can be followed by object + infinitive:

 36.  We want our students to enjoy the course.


A small number of verbs are followed by an object + bare infinitive, e.g. have, help, let, make:

 37.  Have Mr Smiley come in, please.



7.7. Verb + gerund


When a gerund follows a verb, or verb + object, the meaning is normally that the situations described are already in existence, i.e. they are not future situations:

 38.  She hated writing reports.


However, a small number of verbs followed by a gerund complement point to the future. These include consider, contemplate, fancy, feel like, put off, suggest.

 39.  Lindsay suggested going to Majorca next year.

Further Reading


Several of the books below take a more traditional approach to tenses than this paper, but help give the beginning teacher a rounded picture of the subject. Aitken (1992) has some very useful ideas or the classroom. Close (1992) and Lewis (1986) examine some of the common misconceptions about tenses. Parrott (200) and Yule (1998) help blow away the dust from some corners of this area.


Aitken, R. (1992) Teaching Tenses, Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson

Chalker, S, (1984) Current English Grammar, London: Macmillan

Close, R A. (1992) A Teacher’s Grammar, Hove: LTP

Close, R A. (1975) A Reference Grammar for Students of English, London: Longman.

Hornby, AS. (1954) A Guide to Patterns and Usage in English, London: OUP

Leech, G (1987) Meaning and the English Verb (2nd edn), London: Longman

Lewis, M. (1986) The English Verb: Hove, LTP.

Parrott, M. (2000) Grammar for English Language Teachers, Cambridge: CUP

Parrott, M. (2000) Grammar for English Language Teachers, Cambridge: CUP.

Sinclair, J et al (Eds). (1990) English Grammar, London: HarperCollins.

Thornbury, S. (1997) About Language, Cambridge: CUP,

Yule, G.  (1998) Explaining English Grammar, Oxford: OUP.


The following three are sound reference works, though a little academic for the beginning teacher.


Biber, D et al. Grammar of Spoken and Written English, (1999), London, Longman.

Carter R. & McCarthy, M. (2006) Cambridge Grammar of English, Cambridge, CUP

Quirk, R et al. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London, Longman.

[1] Contrast this with: I write notes on the English future. Presumably there was a past time when the speaker did not write notes, and there will be a future time when s/he writes no more. However, such times are irrelevant to this utterance. The present simple, precisely because it does not imply limited duration, implies permanence,


© 2006.2013 J E Webb



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9. The Subjunctive

I consider that, for practical purposes, the subjunctive mood is dead in BrE. I am sometimes taken to task by other teachers for making this statement, and in a recent discussion on an English site elsewhere on the net I was accused of ‘dumbing down’ the grammar of English. So, I thought I’d post my thoughts here to see if I get any reaction.

Let’s take the so-called past subjunctive first.

1. If I was/were you, I’d accept the job.

2. You’d feel differently if you were a woman,

3. If I had an opportunity like that, I’d take it.

It is true that in #1, were is the subjunctive form of BE. However, I prefer to present this as an idiomatic expression, or a fossilised phrase, for three reasons:

1. Many speakers of BrE, particularly those under the age of 40, would say was here.

2. Even many of those who use were in the expression if I were you use was in other expressions where were is the ‘grammatically correct’ form: He’d be a lot happier.

If he ….. still working in Turkey.

3. BE is the only verb in English which has a different form of the verb in the subjunctive – and only in the first and third forms singular. In #2 and #3, for example, and in examples with all other verbs in English, the subjunctive form is identical to the indicative.

These forms may be rendered by a recognisably subjunctive form in other languages, and  they may have had a recognisably subjunctive form in earlier versions of English. Today, however, we cannot see the difference. It seems therefore pointless to call them subjunctive forms. I shall continue to present if I were you as an idiomatic or fossilised expression, and say that the subjunctive mood is dead in modern English – in its past tense form at least.

Let’s move on to the present subjunctive.

This is more recognisable; for BE it is be, and for HAVE it is have, in all persons. For other verbs it is the same as the indicative except for the third person singular, which drops the indicative –s: he come.

It is used after words expressing the idea that something is to be wished for, or is important:

4. I suggest that he be promoted.

5. I insist that John finish his homework before going out.

6. It is essential that she have a proper breakfast befor leaving the house in the morning.

So, why do I claim that the present subjunctive is dead?  Theer are four reasons for this:

1. Apart from the verb BE, The subjunctive is recognisable only in the third person singular. With all other persons, the subjunctive is identical to the indicative: I insist that they finish… , It is essential that you have … .

2, Many speakers of BrE naturally use the indicative anyway: I suggest that he is… , I insist that John finishes … , It is essential that she has … .

3. Even among those who do not use the indicative, most prefer to use a construction with should: I suggest that he should be… , In insist that John should finish… , It is essential that she should have… .

4. The subjunctive sounds stilted today to many native speakers.

So, why torment learners with a form that is alien to most native speakers?

Expressions such as Long live the Queen, as it were and so be it can easily be presented as idiomatic expressions. Life is a lot simpler for everybody .if we stop pretending that the subjunctive is alive and kicking in British English. It’s a different story with American English, but I am a speaker of British English, and that’s the dialect I work in.

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8. Going to Work, in Context

If we have no context for the short utterance: “I am going to work”, it is very difficult to say exactly what message the speaker is trying to convey. In today’s blog, I shall look at three of the possible messages. Please note that the situation is not as confusing as it might appear; in context the intended message will normally be clear to the listener.   

1.  I normally use the car to travel everywhere. Unfortunately, my husband needs it this week, so I am going to work by bike. It’s a new experience for me.

Here am going to is a present progressive (continuous) construction, implying that the activity is of limited duration and is happening around the present time. Work, the destination of the cycle journey is a noun, conveying approximately the same meaning as place of work or the office/factory/shop/etc.

2. My husband needs the car, so I am going to work by bike tomorrow.

Once again, am going to is a present progressive  construction, but this time it looks forward to the future. The going is taking place tomorrow. The present progressive is often used for activities which have been arranged for the future. Work is, as beforem a noun.

3. My husband has taken the children to America for a month. Wonderful! I am going to work on my novel for thirty days without any interruption at all.

Now am going to is operating as what is often referred to as the (BE) going-to future, and work is the infinitive form of the verb.

Whilst context and co-text usually ensure that native speakers have no problems here, learners can become very puzzled. This is sometimes a result of a lack of awareness of certain features of English. Some of the more relevant of these are:

  • Whilst teachers and course books rarely mention this, the (BE) going-to future is formed from the present progressive of GO. It is understandable that when learners are told that the present progressive and (BE) going to are two different ways of expressing the future, some can be confused.
  • (BE) going to and the present progressive form of the full verb can both be used to express futurity: I am going to meet her tomorrow and I am meeting her tomorrow. Usually the two forms convey a slightly different message, though sometimes the difference between the two is very slight indeed. (For more on this, see http://www.gramorak.com/Articles/Future.pdf pages 3-5)
  • The word work can be used as a noun or verb; when the noun is preceded by the preposition to it is identical in appearance to the to-infinitive form of the verb.
  • The noun work (when it means place of work)is not preceded by the in situations in which most other nouns would be. It shares this characteristic with such words as school, hospital, university, prison, etc, and with bed and home.

So long as the teacher is aware of the potential problems for the learner, confusion can be avoided. The underlined words in the preceding sentence are important.

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7. Pedantry and Lowering Standards

As a teacher-trainer, I have been accused of being pedantic when I refuse to accept such written forms as: I think John should of done it; I have been accused of lowering standards when I have said that trainees should teach their students to utter the words I think he should have as /eI θIŋk iː ʃʊd əv/; And I have been called a hypocrite when both things have occurred in the same session.

What many people, including some teachers, unfortunately, do not realise is that written English and spoken English are two different things.

If we are describing our thoughts about a certain person’s unfulfilled obligation in writing, then the written form accepted as correct at present throughout the English speaking world is either I think that he should have done it or I think he should have done it. Fifty years ago my schoolmasters insisted on the that in ‘correct’ written English, but most of us do not insist on that now. The fact that the letter h appears at the beginning of the words he and have does not mean that they necessarily need to be pronounced in the normal conversation, though they may be pronounced in formal rhetoric. It is not ‘uneducated’ to drop one’s aitches after consonant sounds in conversation; most speakers, even professors of English, do it. The natural form of the utterance of those words for southern British speakers is: as /eI θIŋk iː ʃʊd əv dʌn It/. This may be rendered in informal writing as I think he should’ve done it.

Unfortunately, the /əv/ pronunciation of the word have is identical to the pronunciation of the weak form of of. This is what causes uneducated people to write ‘should of’. This is as incorrect as the ate rendering of 8. In fiction, writers may indicate their desire to present a character in a certain way by having the character say should of. This indicates to the reader that the character is uneducated. (Even though the pronunciation of educated and uneducated people is actually the same here!) We have a similar situation when a writer will indicate that a character says sez; the pronunciation, /sez/, is exactly the same of that of an educated person, but the latter’s utterance would be spelt s a y s.

So, insisting on the correct form in formal writing is not pedantry; and dropping your aitches and using contractions in speech is not lowering your standards. It is accepting the realities of the language.

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6. Site Recommendation

I originally started this blog with the idea of publishing my ramblings and of answering questions from students and teachers on abstruse points of grammar. There seemed to be lots of places on the net where prescriptive pedants were telling you what you should say,  but not many places where we could  discuss what is actually said, and why it is said.

A day or two after I had started this blog, I looked around for sites on which I might announce the arrival of this stunning gramorakial service. An early discovery was usingenglish.com.

Here, students and teachers post a wide range of questions which are answered and discussed by a motley crew of students, teachers, academics and just people who are interested in English and the teaching of it. Some of the contributors are silly, some ignorant, some opinionated, but most are experienced, thoughtful teachers who give sound and helpful advice. I wish that site had been around when I was a beginning teacher; I also wish I had discovered it when I was more experienced – it’s not just beginning students who can learn from the answers.

So, I hope you will continue to read my blog to see if there may be something of interest here, and also to send in questions, but I do recommend that you also have a look at usingenglish.com .

There is also another good forum at http://www.englishforums.com/English/.

My own website on grammar is also up and running, thanks to EJ of Webbdesign. So far it has a number of articles (stunningly written, I feel) on various issues concerning the English Verb. Drop in – it’s free!  www.gramorak.com. Unfortunately this is not operating at the moment. I hope to be back there soon.

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5. More on shall/will

As readers of this blog are only too aware, the shall/will problem is a hobby horse of mine. In my fourth post I quoted from that ‘supremely well qualified’ former secondary school headmaster and teacher of English, Cedric Astle BA [Hons]:

The two verbs, ‘I will’  (indicating determination) and ‘I shall’ (futurity), are often confused, sometimes with amusing results (e.g. the well-known sentence: I will drown and nobody shall save me!’ attributed to a foreign student, out of his debt in both the river and his English grammar.)

That hoary story is supposedly amusing because the student was conveying the message (according to people like Mr Astle) that his intention/desire was to drown, and that he placed an obligation on others not to stop him. What he should have said was, “I shall drown, and nobody will save me,” conveying the message that his death by drowning was imminient, and that there were no signs of anybody about to save him.

Actually, of course, most onlookers would not have understood the shall/will difference, and would have clearly understood what he intended to say – though they might have wondered why he didn’t shout a simple “Help”

In The Groundwork of English Grammar (1954), Frederick T Wood, BA, PhD, attempted to reduce the instructional matter to a minimum. However, in the Preface he wrote, “The one exception to this is the chapter on will and shall, where, owing to the confusion which seems to reign in the minds of pupils, and often, it is to be feared, in the minds of even educated adults as well, a fuller treatment seemed desirable”. Over half a century ago, it seems,  even educated adults were confused by the shall/will situation.

In the fuller treatment referred to, Dr Wood explained why: “Until some two hundred years ago ” [i.e. about 1750] “practice varied a good deal, so that the position was rather chaotic.” Wood in effect admitted that the system he was explaining was not a natural phenomenom in early English. He went on on: “about the middle of the eighteenth century, it settled down to a recognised system which all educated people sought to use and which therefore came to be regarded as ‘correct’ and any variation from it as incorrect.” So, all educated people, a tiny minority of the population at that time, sought to use an unnatural system which was ‘recognised’  by a handful of self-appointed experts, such as Lowth (1762) and Murray(1795).

Wood then wrote some 3,000 words to explain three conjugations, Subjective Volition (will), Objective Volition (shall), andFuture Tense (shall/will). In his conjugations, he included the forms thou shalt and thou wilt. One wonders if he imagined them to be still in common use in 1954. Poor Wood had to resort to some tortuous explanations in his attempts  to present a logical system, and made some statements which, even half a century ago, must have sounded extreme to most native speakers, for example: “It is just nonsense to say’I will be sixteen in June’, since no question of determination or willingness is involved”. Even Wood had to add a section on “anomalies in the use of the Future Tense”.

A stream of self-appointed experts from Wallis (1653) onwards decided that the ‘future tense’ in English was formed with the auxiliary verb ‘shall’ for the first person singular and plural and ‘will’ for all other persons. Generations of pupils were forced to learn this unnatural rule and, even today, some writers still believe that deviation from the rule is incorrect.

But then between 10% and 40% (depending on the poll) of Americans believe that the heavens, earth and all life were created by God during six 24-hour days between 5,500 and 10,00 years ago.

I expect a few people genuinely believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


ps: Don’t forget to visit my new website at www.gramorak.com. It already has a few articles on the English Verb, with more in the pipeline.

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4. Rules and Rubbish

On a recent visit to England, I picked up a test yourself book in a second-hand bookshop: “How good is your English? by a  certain Cedric Astle BA [Hons]  who, ‘as a former secondary school headmaster and teacher of English … is supremely well-qualified to write this book’.

I looked at some of the questions, and groaned. Old-fashioned prescriptive grammar at its worst. Some of the information given was pretty outdated when I was at school in the 1950s and 60s, and I was horrified to discover that this book was written in 1979 and reprinted in 1988 (or  MCMLXXIX and MCMLXXXVIII, as the publisher so unhelpfully expressed the years).

Here are some examples of what was being passed off as ‘good grammar’ only 23 years ago – and probably still is today (I have added my comments in italics):

Can you say what is wrong with these sentences?

Q. Can you imagine him forgetting a date like that?

A.  him× his√. The possessive case should be used for a pronoun followed by a gerund.

Apart from the fact that  nouns in English don’t have ‘cases’, insistence on the possessive form in such constructions is simply pedantry. The Fowlers claimed in ‘The King’s English’ (1906) that failure to use a possessive form was “grammatically indefensible”, but used Latin grammar to support their claim. They also produced many examples  of what they considered to be incorrect usage taken from serious newspapers and respected writers, which suggests that even a century ago the Fowlers’ views were not universally accepted.  Indeed in ‘An Advanced English Syntax’ published two years earlier, , CT Onions argued that there was “nothing illogical or inconsistent” in the use of the non-possessive form. In the Tracts of the Society for  Pure English between 1925 and 1927,  H W Fowler argued his point with Jespersen, who forcefully defended the construction so disliked by Fowler.

More recent authorities including such luninaries as Eric Patridge (1947),  Sir Ernest Gowers (1954) and R W Burchfield (1996), have discussed the topic. While some feel that there are good reasons for retaining the use of the possessive, none claim that not using it is incorrect.

Q. Can I drive you home?

A. Can× may√.Confusion of two verbs results in an impropriety frequently encountered and generally condoned. It should be remembered, however, that ‘can’ refers to capacity or ability to do something; ‘may to permission or sanction.

The plain fact is that for a majority of native speakers of English ‘can’ now can refer to permission or sanction; to such speakers ‘may’ can sound pretentious.

Q. They didn’t use to allow such goings-on here.

A. didn’t use×  used not√. Inelegant form of verb used, though the expression (didn’t use) is frequently used by inelegant speakers.

Inelegant speakers must make up over 90% of the population, then.  ‘used not’ sounds odd these days to most people.

Q. If I was wrong, I’d be the first to admit it.

A. was×  were√. Subjunctive mood required when conjunction ‘if’ introduces a supposition.

I use ‘were’ myself for hypothetical utterances – but I am aware that I am now in the minority of native speakers to do so.The subjunctive has been dying for a long time and, for most speakers, it is now dead.

Q. I will never be out of debt.

A. will×  shall√.  The two verbs, ‘I will’  (indicating determination) and ‘I shall’ (futurity), are often confused, sometimes with amusing results (e.g. the well-known sentence: I will drown and nobody shall save me!’ attributed to a foreign student, out of his debt in both the river and his English grammar.)

I have ranted about shall/will in other posts on this blog, so I’ll just repeat here: Only a small minority of southern British speakers of English ever followed the shall/will rule. Most native speakers do not use ‘shall’ for futurity.

Q. Due to the postal strike, I did not receive your letter in time.

A. Due×  owing√. The word ‘due’ which is adjectival in function, should be logically related toits noun or pronoun.

Says who? Cedric Astle BA [Hons]! As Burchfield points out, “Hostility to the construction (‘due to’ used as a prepositional phrase in verbless clauses) is an entirely 20th century phenomenom. Opinion remains sharply divided, but it looks as if this use of ‘due to’ will form part of the natural language of the 21st century as one more example of a forgotten battle.”

Some of my TEFL trainees who were taught by such supremely well-qualified teachers as Cedric Astle BA [Hons] have accused me of lowering standards by teaching my students grossly incorrect grammar. My response is simply that my tolerance of constructions they and prescriptive grammarians so dislike is simply a recognition that most serious gramarians describe the language as it is, not as they think it should be. If many moderately well educated speakers us a construction or word normally and naturally, then it is not grossly ( or even slightly) incorrect. The fact that it might not have been considered correct fifty years ago is not relevant today.

The language that we speak now has evolved and changed constantly since it first appeared as a language distinct from the Germanic languages in which lay its roots. And, since at least the sixteenth century, there have always been writers who deplore the ‘lowering of standards’ and wish to freeze it in some way at the state it was in during their teachers’ youth. However, he language of  Anthony Burgess is no ‘worse’ (or ‘better’) than that of Jane Austen; hers no worse than Shakespeare’s; his no worse than Chaucer’s. Language changes.

It is true that the language of serious writers tends to be more formal in construction, uses richer vocabulary, and retains older constructions than the language of most speakers in everyday life. But it is the language of most speakers in everyday life that most foreigners wish to learn. ‘To whom were you talking as you came in’ is not natural spoken English; ‘Who were you talking to as you came in’ is.

Whether we like it or not, many forms once deplored by certain authorities (Split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences, ‘I will’ to express futurity, ‘can I?’ to ask permission, ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb meaning ‘it is to be hoped’ ….) are now part of our modern language. Accepting them is no more a lowering of standards than preferring a car to a pony and trap.


Astle, Ceedric, (1979), How good is your English, Kingswood: Elliot Right Way Books

Burchfield, R W (ed), (1996), The New Fowler’s Moden English Usage, Oxford: OUP

Fowler, H W & F G, (1906) The King’s English, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Fowler, H W, (1925), “Italic, Fused Participles, &c.”, Society for Pure English Tract 22. Oxford: Clarendon Press,

Fowler, H W, (1927), “Ing“, Society for Pure English Tract 26. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Onions, C T, (1904)  An Advanced English Syntax, London: Swan Sonnenschein

Gowers, Sir Ernest, (1986) The Complete Plain Words (3rd edn), London: HMSO

Jespersen, Otti, (1926), On some disputed points in English Grammar, Society for Pure English Tract 25. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Partridge, Eric (1947), Usage and Abusage, London: Hamish Hamilton


ps: Don’t forget to visit my new website at www.gramorak.com. It already has a few articles on the English Verb, with more in the pipeline.

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