From a paper I wrote:
.....This adds to the mystery as to why, uniquely among the modal auxiliaries, will plus base infinitive ever came to be called “future simple tense”, especially given that all the modals may be gainfully employed in future time reference, as the example shows, where tenseforms are in bold and the infinitive is in italics.
• We can’t / could / may well / might just / must / needn’t / ought to / definitely shan’t / should probably / will certainly / would never mention your sister’s plight at the dinner tomorrow.
What is more, on formal grounds alone will has never possessed the right to be called future tense, and for two unconnected reasons. First, if an Indo-European language has true future tense, it has a one-word future-tense verbphrase, as we have already seen with Spanish (French and Portuguese are the same), whereas our “future simple tense” is a two-word verbphrase – a compound. But secondly and in any event, it is not a true compound tense, for active and passive compound tenses in English are made up of auxiliary plus one or two participles, and never of auxiliary plus infinitive (with the anomalous exception of do, as has been mentioned). Ergo, will cannot possibly be future tense!
Or can it? Those who consider will to be future tense might suggest that will is another exception similar to do. Two facts suggest otherwise, however. While the case of do is undeniably unique among Germanic languages, will is a modal auxiliary known to have cognates in other Germanic languages. Moreover, do only takes base infinitive, whereas will, like the other modals, may take any infinitive (as in the examples with must above). We must delve deeper.
5. The Nature of the Beast.
If will is not future tense, what can it be? A quick look at the German verb werden and the “modal infinitives” may shed some light, for German unequivocally possesses no future tense. As a main verb, werden has the basic meaning of ‘become’, as in
Er wird dick. (He’s getting fat.)
But as an auxiliary, werden marks future prediction or certainty, as in
Er wird dick werden. (He’ll get fat. / He’s going to get fat.)
However, the verbform wird is obviously not a future-tense verbform, but is rather the third person singular of the present indicative tense of werden. In other words, wird is a present-tense verbform which may be used as an auxiliary in future time reference. Similarly, most of the modal infinitives dürfen, können, mögen, müssen, sollen, wollen (the majority of them cognate with English modals) also employ present indicative in future time reference, as the examples show, where present indicative is underlined.
Darf ich es morgen tun? (May I do it tomorrow?)
Kann sie es morgen tun? (Is she able to do it tomorrow?)
Du musst es morgen tun. (You must do it tomorrow.)
Er soll es morgen tun. (He is supposed to do it tomorrow.)
Ich will es morgen tun. (I want to do it tomorrow.)
Could it be that will is technically a present-tense form like its German cognate?
A second question begs itself, namely how often in tongues like Spanish that do possess future tense is it actually used in future time reference? As it turns out, future time reference may be accomplished in Spanish by the present indicative, present subjunctive, potential, imperfect subjunctive, present perfect subjunctive, and imperative, as well as by future tenses, as the selected examples show, where non-future tenseforms are in bold and future tenseforms are underlined.
Ahorita lo hago / haré.
(I’ll do it right now.)
Mi hermano llega / va a llegar mañana de Estados Unidos.
(My brother arrives / is arriving / is going to arrive from America tomorrow.)
¡Aguas! ¡Te vas a caer!
(Look out! You’re going to fall!)
¿Qué hacen / van a hacer hoy en la noche?
(What are they doing / are they going to do tonight?)
Si llueve, no salimos / no vamos a salir / no saldremos.
(If it rains, we aren’t going out / we aren’t going to go out / we won’t go out.)
Si pudiera conseguir el dinero, saldría de aquí mañana.
(If I could get the money together, I’d be out of here tomorrow.)
Cuando hayas terminado el reporte, mándamelo por fax.
(When you’ve finished the report, fax it to me.)
Nos vemos / Nos estamos viendo.
(I’ll see you / I’ll be seeing you.)
Consequently, the fact that a language boasts true future tense in no way entails that every instance of future time reference will necessarily involve its use. Rather, it is the specific type of future time reference and not the idea of futurity per se that determines, or “selects for”, the appropriate form, and even then cases of overlapping occur, as we shall also see when we consider future time reference in English. But first we must look into will itself.
6. The Beauty of Will.
English will functions as a main verb with the basic meaning of ‘employ volition’ and, by extension, ‘bequeath’, as in
He willed the spoon to bend
She willed her fortune to an AIDS group
It is also a noun closely related in meaning to the main verb, as in
It’s a test of wills
It’s a matter of willpower
She left us nothing in her will
As an auxiliary, moreover, it retains the “volition”-related ideas of “immutable” nature when unstressed, and of “unalterable” habits and characteristics when stressed (indicated by bold type) and often accompanied by always, as in
“Boys will be boys and girls will be girls”
Water will freeze at zero
That dog will (always) chase after cars
George will (always) whistle tunelessly in the bath
But, as an auxiliary, will plus base infinitive is most closely associated in EFL/ESL literature and materials with future time reference, as in
I’ll love you for ever and a day
The Bills will win the SuperBowl this time round!
In 100 years’ time, humanity will probably be back to huddling in caves
Sad to report, on more than one occasion this writer has seen both do and will plus base infinitive egregiously described as auxiliary plus present tense, not to mention am/are/is going to quixotically classified as the “idiomatic future tense” when it is none other than present continuous tense. Such errors are not only unforgivable and not only do a disservice to learners, who have enough on their plate as it is, but they are also hard to fathom given that the truth about will has been with us all the way.
7. The Proof of the Pudding.
In specific contexts, English “modal pairs” can clearly be shown to be acting in tandem to refer to present and past time, leading us to conclude that modals are present-tense and past-tense forms. If in these contexts they are present- and past-tense forms, then so must they be in all other contexts regardless of the time reference they may be involved in, for, as we saw in the examples in Section 3 involving present simple, formal leopards may not change their spots.
First, to return to the examples of “volition”, we see that
That dog will always chase after cars
means something like ‘it is that dog’s unalterable habit to chase after cars’, and
George will always whistle tunelessly in the bath
means something like ‘it is George’s unalterable habit to whistle tunelessly in the bath’. Now if we change will to would, we see that
That dog would always chase after cars
means that ‘it was that dog’s unalterable habit to chase after cars, which is how he got himself killed’, and
George would always whistle tunelessly in the bath
means that ‘it was George’s unalterable habit to whistle tunelessly in the bath, until poor old Myrtle started lacing his rum and coke with arsenic’. Here, the will-would pairing clearly marks present and past time reference.
Similarly, a present “negative volition” is attributed to animate and inanimate “nay-sayers”, as in
My stupid car won’t start
The printer won’t work
My oldies won’t let me go to the Doctor John concert
which in past time reference become
My stupid car wouldn’t start
The printer wouldn’t work
My oldies wouldn’t let me go to the Doctor John concert
Equally, if, while he is alive, Grandda Adams will always take a break from the garden and sit down in the windbreak at the side of the manse to have a smoke, then once he is gone I will reminisce (with unstressed would) that
My Grandda would always sit himself down to work up his pipe. First, he would take out his plug of tobacco, then he’d slice off a few chunks,…
Clearly, will and would are a present-tense and past-tense tandem which in the area of “volition” are selected for in present and past time reference. Now we shall consider “lapsed-time” reported speech and “counterfactual” wishes, where the present-tense and past-tense tandem continues to operate.
In lapsed-time reporting, present-tense forms in the subordinate clauses following reporting verbs are “tense-changed”, i.e. changed to their corresponding past-tense forms, as the examples show. The relevant tenseforms are underlined.
“This government has no intention of raising taxes.”
= Chancellor Brown stressed that his government had no intention of raising taxes.
“The people of East Timor have much to celebrate.”
= UN Secretary Kofi Annan said that the people of East Timor had much to celebrate.
“This administration is never going to give in to terror.”
= President Bush stated that his administration was never going to give in to terror.
Here, the present-tense forms has, have, and is of direct speech are tense-changed to the past-tense forms had and was in reported speech. Now let us see what happens if we add will to the last example and then report it, as in
“This administration is never going to / will never give in to terror.”
= President Bush said that his administration was never going to / would never….
Confirming the results of our look at “volition”, will-would follows the same present-to-past pattern as is-was. Moreover, this pattern also holds good for can-could and may-might, as in
“Unfortunately, Jack Straw is unable to / cannot comment at this moment in time.”
= A spokesperson regretted that Mr Straw was unable to / could not comment….
“The India-Pakistan conflict may escalate into nuclear war unless….”
= White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer expressed the administration’s concern that the India-Pakistan conflict might escalate into nuclear war unless….
The case of must is instructive, too, as must may not itself be tense-changed and had to is normally used, as in
“You must / have to hand in your essays by Friday.”
= Mr. Fuller-Sessions told his students that they had to hand in their essays by Friday.
The form had to is the past tense of present-tense have to, which may co-occur with must in this context. This means that must (despite a -t ending that smacks of past tense) is also a present-tense form like have to. Thus, not only will-would, but also can-could and may-might are seen to be present-tense and past-tense pairs, and must is (presumably) a lone present-tense ranger. Any other conclusion would turn lapsed-time reporting rules upside-down and inside-out.
Finally, in the context of counterfactual wishes, tense-changing is also mandated, and will-would and can-could happily oblige. There is no question of past time reference in this context, so the examples serve to underscore that modals are indeed either present-tense or past-tense verbforms.
George will always whistle tunelessly in the bath, and I wish he wouldn’t
My little brother will always pester me, and I wish he wouldn’t
The doctor’s taking for ever (he won’t arrive in time) – I wish he’d hurry up
It’s been dry for weeks (it won’t rain) – I wish it would rain
I’m stuck in this hole (I can’t get out of here) – I wish I could get out of here
Let us sum up. In the various areas of “volition”, will and would are consistently and systematically selected for as a present-tense and past-tense tandem to refer to present and past time, which, backed up by the tense-changing of lapsed-time reporting and counterfactual wishes, leaves us no choice but to accept that all modal auxiliaries must be present-tense or past-tense verbforms. Present-tense and past-tense modal auxiliary pairs, it can confidently be stated, are can-could, may-might, will-would (as well as shall-should, which is not a tense-changing tandem any more, and rarely used dare-dared). Whether or not must is historically present-tense or past-tense is of little import, for as a modal it shares with need and ought the distinction of possessing no other form. Now we may go back to the future.....