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Future Tense - How to Form

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When the activity you describe isn’t happening right now (present tense) and didn’t happen yesterday (past tense), perhaps it’ll take place tomorrow (future tense).

Other Ways of Expressing Futurity

In English, we have several ways of expressing futurity. We can use the present tense and write:

Tip-off is tonight at 7:00 on ESPN. The game begins tomorrow night.

Or we can use what’s called the present-progressive tense and write:

The game is being televised tonight at 7:00 on ESPN.

Or we can turn to a variety of verb combinations and write,

The game is about to be broadcast. The game is going to be broadcast.

Or in the South, where I come from:

The game’s fixin’ to be broadcast.

All these, and more, can show the future.

Forming the Future Tense

The future tense that we remember from grade school, however, is the one formed with the words shall and will. For most writing in American English, we simply insert the verb will before the base infinitive verb and produce the future tense in all persons—singular and plural. If you want to form the future tense of write for the first person in most writing that uses American English, then say:

I will write the book. (singular) We will write the book. (plural)

At least that’s the American rule.

If you live in England or other British Commonwealth country, if you wish to speak or write British English, or if you routinely want to produce a highly formal tone, then you should use shall to form the future tense in the first person. Thus:

I shall write the book. (singular) We shall write the book. (plural)

If you count yourself in this group, you are no doubt quite ready to organize a massive book-burning with my grammar ebooks as the kindling, for you would not allow will to show the future tense in the first person. But you might consider the following statement from the BBC’s website:

There is no semantic difference when shall and willare used to refer to the simple future. Willcan be used in all persons.

BBC.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv43.shtml (bold emphasis added).

Further, in the words of Garner Oxford:

[W]ith only minor exceptions, will has become the universal word to express futurity, regardless of whether the subject is in the first, second, or third person. Shall is now mostly restricted to two situations: (1) interrogative sentences requesting permission or agreement [shall we dance?] and (2) legal documents, in which shall purportedly imposes a duty. Garner Oxford, p. 304.

Entire essays could be, and have been, written about the differences between shall and will. See New Fowler, pp. 706-707; see Follett, pp. 275-77. These go beyond the question of forming the future tense and delve into the use of shall and will to show determination and compulsion.

Here, in this discussion of verbs, I need to present only this rule:

In most American writing, use will to form all future tenses for all persons (first, second, and third) (singular and plural).

If you’re writing something quite formal or intended for an audience likely to get its collective knickers in a twist over the American approach, then follow British English: Use shall to form the future tenses in the first person and will for second and third persons. (Remember, however, the BBC says that will forms the future tense in the first person.)

Actually, in expository writing, the issue won’t arise very often for one simple reason: The first person doesn’t show up too much in formal writing. You will face the problem in letter writing, however, for it’s the rare letter that doesn’t say something like this:

I will call you with our answer sometime next week.

In America:

I will call you . . . .

In England:

I shall call you . . . .

Or perhaps I should say,

I shall ring you ….

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.

 

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