Talking about future time - Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners - PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Advanced English Grammar for ESL Learners (2011)

8 Talking about future time

This chapter focuses on the various ways English has developed for talking about the future. In particular we will examine (1) the modal auxiliary verbs, and (2) the present and present progressive tenses.

Talking about the future and planning for it are things that people love to discuss. Not surprisingly, then, English has developed a number of different ways to talk about the future. Unfortunately, English has not developed very good terminology for talking about these numerous options.

The first obstacle is the term future tense itself. English has never had a future tense in the sense that the Romance languages like Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish have. In those languages, there is a set of infl ected forms of the verb that refers to future time. In the distant, prehistorical past, the Germanic ancestral language of English (as well as modern German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages) lost this entire set of future-tense inflections.

The probable reason for the disappearance of the future tense from all Germanic languages is that the ancestral Germanic language developed a suite of helping verbs that allows people to talk about the future in a very sophisticated way. These helping verbs, called modal auxiliary verbs, evidently proved so successful that they completely replaced the older future-tense inflectional system.

Here is the complete set of modal auxiliary verbs:

Modal auxiliary verbs


There are two big differences in form between modal and normal (i.e., nonmodal) verbs:

1. Modals do not have any infinitive, present participle, or past participle forms.

2. None of the present-tense modals has a third-person singular -s. (The historical reason for this odd fact is that all of the modern present-tense forms of modals were originally past-tense forms that never had the third-person singular -s to begin with. Over time all of the present-tense modals except must evolved new past-tense forms to replace the lost past-tense forms. Must is thus the only verb in English that does not have a past-tense form.)

The modals are always followed by a verb in its base form. A base-form verb is the dictionary-entry form of a verb. It is like an infinitive except it does not have to in front of the verb. This base-form verb must play one of the following three roles: the main verb, the helping verb be as part of the progressive tense, or the helping verb have as part of the perfect tense. For example:

Main verb

We will let you know.
You should do better next time.

Helping verb be followed by a present participle as part of a progressive tense

I will be seeing them this afternoon.
The kids should be doing their homework instead of watching TV.

Helping verb have followed by a past participle as part of a perfect tense

The class might have studied tenses already.
They should have finished by now.

Note: Both be and have can also be used as main verbs after a modal verb. For example:

Be as a main verb

We will be late for our meeting if we don’t hurry.
I can’t be everywhere at once.

Have as a main verb

I will have the pasta.
They can have as much time as they need.


Underline the base-form verb in the following sentences. Then identify the role that the base-form verb plays: (1) main verb, (2) helping verb as part of the progressive tense, or (3) helping verb as part of a perfect tense by writing “main verb,” “progressive helping verb,” or “perfect helping verb” in the space provided. The first question is done as an example.

I will not be working from home this week. ____________________

I will not be working from home this week progressive helping verb

1. We shouldn’t fear the future. ____________________

2. They must have adjusted the height of the seat. ____________________

3. I’ll have a soda, please. ____________________

4. She will be retiring in a couple of years. ____________________

5. The police must have noticed the broken window. ____________________

6. We will invite them to our next reception. ____________________

7. The meeting will be over by six at the latest. ____________________

8. We must be going soon. ____________________

9. The revisions will have cost us a fortune by the time we are done. ____________________

10. The wind might be dropping a little. ____________________

Another big difference between modal and regular verbs is that the terms present tense and past tense refer only to historical verb forms, not to time. The modals stand outside of the tense system: the present-tense modals do not refer to present time, nor do the past-tense modals refer to past time. The modals function as subjunctive verbs. Subjunctive verbs convey information about the possibility or probability of doing something or something happening, about the necessity or obligation of doing something or of something happening, about things that are hypothetical or an event contrary to fact.

Most uses of the nine modals fall into one of these five subjunctive categories:

1. Prediction of future activities and events

2. Obligation to carry out future activities or actions

3. Necessity of the occurrence of future events or actions

4. Permission or request to carry out a future actions

5. Capability of engaging in future actions


Using one of the five categories above, pick the category (or sometimes two categories) that the modals in the following sentences best fit. The first question is done as an example.

We shall overcome. (3) prediction

1. It may rain tomorrow. _________________________________

2. You may go to the party, but only if you are back before midnight. ____________________

3. You can do it! _______________________________

4. The Cubs might actually finish in first place this year. ____________________

5. You should write them a thank-you note. ____________________

6. The company should start making money next year. ____________________

7. I must get to the office early tomorrow. ______________________________

8. Shall we start now? _____________________________

9. I may be able to help you. ______________________________

10. They won’t be ready until next week sometime. ____________________

While each of the nine modals has its own range of meanings, the past-tense modals all tend to have a hypothetical or tentative meaning. We saw this same subjunctive use of the past tense in Chapter 7, “Talking about past time,” with the use of the past tense in if clauses. For example:

If I were you, I would not do that.

To see the typical difference between a present-tense modal and its past-tense counterpart, compare the following sentences:


The speakers in both sentences are making a suggestion. However, the sentences have very different implications. The speaker who used can is making a proposal that the speaker expects the listeners to accept or at the least offer an alternative. The speaker who used could is throwing out a much more tentative suggestion that invites discussion and even counterproposals.


Pick the appropriate form of the pair of modals that best fits the meaning of the sentence and write it in the blank space within the sentence. The first question is done as an example.

may/might: We might drop by after dinner, but it will probably be too late.

1. can/could: I have every confidence that you ____________________ do it.

2. shall/should: Electrical devices ____________________ meet legal standards wherever possible.

3. will/would: We ____________________ meet with the committee at nine tomorrow morning.

4. may/might: It ____________________ rain, but the weather looks pretty good now.

5. can/could: They ____________________ make the changes if it were absolutely necessary.

6. will/would: I ____________________ be happy to do it, if I had the time.

7. may/might: You ____________________ go outside and play now.

8. shall/should: Electrical devices ____________________ meet legal standards or the permit will be denied.

9. can/could: The animals ____________________ take care of themselves just fine.

10. will/would: We ____________________ keep at it until the job is done.

Using the present and present progressive tenses for future time

Both the present and present progressive tenses can be used to talk about the future, but in slightly different ways. The present tense is used for established events or events that are known or fixed. For example:

Our flight leaves at 7:35.
The moon rises at 6:44 this evening.
The meeting begins at 2:30.

We use the present tense in questions when we ask for information that is already established or known (though not, of course, by the person asking the question). For example:

When does the next train for Chicago leave?
When does your school start this year?
When does Ms. Kaufman get back from vacation?

Another way to think of the present tense is that it is used for information that is “old” in the sense that it is already fixed and known to others (though, again, not to the person asking the question).

The present progressive, on the other hand, is used for information that is not already established or not known by another member of the conversation. In that sense it is “new” information. Here is a typical situation in which the present progressive is appropriate and the present is ungrammatical.

Your immediate supervisor makes the following announcement to you and your colleagues: “Mr. Brown is calling a special meeting tomorrow at 4:00.” The use of the present progressive signals that your supervisor knows that you and your colleagues could not have known or anticipated this new information. The use of the present tense instead of the present progressive for the same message would be ungrammatical: “X Mr. Brown calls a special meeting tomorrow at 4:00.”

Here are some more example where the present progressive is grammatical but the present is not:


Neither tense can be used for unpredictable, unplanned future events. For example:



Each of the following sentences has a blank space where the verb should go. In front of each sentence there are two verb forms in parentheses: the present and the present perfect. Pick which form best suits the meaning of the sentence and write it in the blank space. If neither one is appropriate, write “none.” The first question is done as an example.

begins/is beginning: The play begins promptly at eight.

1. drifts/is drifting: Fortunately, the storm ____________________ out to sea tonight.

2. comes/is coming: Due to an accident on the freeway, he ____________________ in late.

3. falls/is falling: Christmas ____________________ on a Saturday next year.

4. take/am taking: I won’t be at the meeting Tuesday; I ____________________ the day off.

5. rains/is raining: It ____________________ tomorrow.

6. does the office open/is the office opening: When ____________________ ?

7. close/are closing: All the banks ____________________ at six today.

8. catch/are catching: They ____________________ the late flight tonight.

9. closes/is closing: The stock market ____________________ up tomorrow.

10. get/are getting: We ____________________ a pizza for dinner tonight.