Letters to the Professor

I am a student of German at the University of Rzeszów. Recently, I have come across a problem with the usage of the simple future tense. It goes without saying that we should not use the simple future tense in the 'if'-clause to refer to the future - a present tense is used instead, e.g." If I have enough money next year I will go to Japan." The only exception I have known so far is the use of 'will' in the 'if'-clause with the meaning of willingness or insistence (not futurity), e.g." If you will be kind enough to wait, I will have your luggage brought in." Recently, however, I bought the book 100 testów gramatyki angielskiej by Henryk Krzyzanowski and on page 241, I found the following examples:

"We really ought to be told when Maria will return from her trip."
" If I knew when everything will be ready, I could plan the tour much better."
" No expert can tell you if the price of gold won't drop again after Christmas."

I wonder if you will be kind enough to elaborate on these examples? Marcin K., Czudec, woj. podkarpackie

Dear Marcin,

Thank you for your long and thoughtful letter. I had made a New Year's Resolution not to write about the modal verbs, especially 'will' or 'shall' during 2000, but since you have asked, and my good resolutions always seem to get broken eventually, I shall try and help.

Let's start by looking at the example sentences given. "We really ought to be told when Maria will return from her trip." Now rewrite that without using 'will'. "We really ought to be told when Maria returns from her trip." Now that is also a perfectly correct sentence - but interestingly it has a different meaning! In the first sentence, we wish to know now the date of Maria's return: in the second, we wish to be informed on her return. Alternatively, we could use other formulations: "We really ought to be told when Maria is going to return from her trip," or "We really ought to be told when Maria is to return from her trip." These are closer in meaning to the original sentence, but differ slightly. Using 'is to' implies that Maria's date of return has definitely been fixed; whereas using 'going to' suggests that the return date is planned or arranged, but without quite the same degree of certainty. The original sentence using 'will' however tends to suggest that Maria is quite unpredictable, and that the speaker is rather annoyed by the fact that he does not know, nor does he expect to be told, the date of her return.

A fluent English speaker will be aware of all four alternative structures listed above, and the fact that one is chosen rather than another, although the 'choice' is made unconsciously, carries the particular meaning suggested above. Therefore, unless the speaker is feeling annoyed with the situation, he is most likely to say, "We really ought to be told when Maria is going to return from her trip." The use of 'will' in such circumstances is more likely from an irritated native speaker, or a non-native who has been misled by old-fashioned grammar books into believing that English has future tenses. We do not. 'Will' and 'shall' are examples of modal verbs, which as their name suggests, imply the opinions of the speaker and therefore are highly subjective, and consequently never 'simple'. The absence of a 'simple future tense' in English creates a situation where any present tense structure can be used when talking about future or hypothetical events, and therefore always presents the speaker with a range of possibilities that the skilful will exploit fully. This is one of the things that makes English such a powerful and expressive language.

Now let's look at your next example. "If I knew when everything will be ready, I could plan the tour much better." In this instance, as the speaker does not know, we are dealing with a hypothetical false situation where the past subjunctive would seem appropriate: "If I knew when everything were ready, I could plan the tour much better." But just as in the first example, this has changed the meaning of the original statement. Once again we have made the speaker wish to be informed when the event happens, not, as in the original version, to know the date of completion in advance of the event. To preserve the original meaning, the speaker could have said, "If I knew when everything is going to be ready..." or "If I knew when everything is to be ready..." Once again the 'going to' structure sounds the more natural to me, and the use of 'will' unusual. You will not now be surprised to hear that I would use 'going to' in the last example sentence as well: "No expert can tell you if the price of gold isn't going to drop again after Christmas."

In brief, my guess would be that the writer of this textbook has, as a non-native speaker, invented these examples rather than taken them from one of the now readily-accessible corpuses of real quotations available on the Internet. Alternatively, they may have originated from speakers from Southern Ireland, or those parts of the USA originally settled by Irish immigrants. For the Irish tend to use the structure 'will' more than other native speakers, possibly because of their Gaelic background, and this tendency has been inherited by many Americans.

So you see there is no such thing as a standard way of speaking about the future in English -there are many possible ways. Aspects of probability, desirability, speaker background, and many other factors will influence which construction is used. And with reference to the use of 'will', most of my uses in this article (for example in the previous sentence) do not refer to the future specifically, but are my personal predictions of other people's usual behaviour; not just in the future, but in the present and past as well. In English nothing is 'Simple'!


John Williams