Most future-referring verbs convey more than just future meaning
HOW FUTURE MEANING CAN VARY
When an English verb has future meaning, it usually also carries secondary information about that future. Consider this:
(a) Learning a new language will be facilitated by living where it is spoken.
In a research paper, the underlined words are likely to be understood not just as a future event but also as a high-probability prediction (lesser probability would be shown by should or may instead of will – see 96. Hedging 2: Lists and Predictions). However, predictions are only one of many possible meanings that a verb with future meaning can additionally express. If (a) was addressed to language learners, it would have more chance of being taken as a promise – a mention of a future reward.
In both of these cases, the grammatical form of the future-expressing verb (with will) is the same: readers are able to understand the right meaning from the context and/or their general knowledge of the world. In some other cases, however, English grammar does give some help. The absence of will in the following helps to ensure that neither a prediction nor a promise is being expressed:
(b) The Director is meeting the Finance Manager tomorrow.
The special meaning of this future-expressing verb (in the “present continuous” tense) might be described as arrangement-reporting.
All of these different uses of future-expressing verbs illustrate what I mean by “types of future meaning”. There are many others in English. In this post I aim to identify those that seem the most important in professional writing, highlighting linguistic differences between them. For other Guinlist posts that touch on English tense usage, see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs and 171. Aspects of the Past Perfect Tense.
FUTURE MEANINGS IN PROFESSIONAL WRITING
Predicted futures are usually outside the control of the person predicting them. They are quite common in professional writing, but are usually based on good evidence – past experience or scientific data – rather than mere faith. The following is a more faith-based prediction that would not be likely in professional writing:
(c) The world will (or may or is going to) end next July.
Predictions like (a) are made when their sentence is uttered, but others are made earlier and are merely being reported in their sentence, like this:
(d) It is expected that El Niño WILL RAISE global temperatures.
The underlined words here are a reporting verb, a common means by which reports are shown (see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech). Other common prediction-reporting verbs include FORECAST, FORETELL and PREDICT.
However, not all uses of these verbs are reporting: they can also be used to make rather than report predictions. The simplest way of doing this is by beginning I predict … . In formal writing, where I is likely to need avoiding, the prediction-making meaning can be expressed with can and the passive form. Thus, sentence (d) using this would begin El Niño can be expected to raise… . For more on using can to avoid I, see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You” and 107. The Language of Opinions.
Another feature of prediction verbs is that they can indicate the future meaning entirely by themselves. One way is through their passive form (+ to) replacing a standard future form like will. This is what happens in the prediction-making El Niño can be expected to raise…, and is also possible in prediction-reporting (…is expected to raise…).
Some predictions are general (not based on one particular time – see 89. Using “the” with General Meaning) and some are specific. The one in (a) above is general, as is the following:
(e) Water will boil at 100 degrees C.
This is about any water at any time. To make it refer to particular water at a particular time, it is necessary to add the at the start.
Most grammar books point out that going to is an alternative to will and may in predictions. It implies that some observable evidence is present at the time of the prediction, such as small bubbles appearing in water as it approaches boiling. It can be used with both general and specific predictions, but is perhaps more likely in the latter.
2. Promises and Threats
Both of these mention a future event or situation – positive for promises, negative for threats – in the hope of affecting the addressee’s behaviour. Their use seems more likely in business than academic writing. Sentence (a) could in the right circumstances be a promise, since successful language learning is usually viewed positively. Here is a sentence that, in the right context, can be interpreted as containing a threat:
(f) Unsatisfactory results will/may/could cause the contract to be terminated.
Once again, the verb has will or a less definite alternative; this seems to be the normal choice for promises and threats.
Like predictions, promises and threats can be reported as well as made when they are spoken. Possible reporting verbs include GUARANTEE, PROMISE, PLEDGE, UNDERTAKE, VOW, THREATEN and WARN. These can be used either with a following will (X threatens that Y will …) or without, so that they alone carry the future meaning (X threatens to …; X threatens something). Sometimes the use is metaphorical (see 7. Metaphorical Meanings):
(g) Global warming threatens to raise sea levels.
Promise-reporting verbs can also be used after I or we in order just to make the promise instead of reporting it (I pledge that/to …).
Arrangements are future plans agreed by two or more people. Their making is likely to involve will:
(g) OK, we’ll meet 6.00.
However, when an arrangement is reported, as in (b) above, the present continuous tense seems more typical.
Alternatively, one can report an arrangement with BE TO – is to meet in (b). The suggestion then is that the subject of the verb is less responsible for initiating the arrangement than the other person. For more, see 119. BE Before a “to” Verb. and 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs.
As these examples suggest, arrangement-reporting can easily occur in business contexts, especially spoken.
4. Imminent Message Content
Giving readers or listeners notice of what they are about to read or hear is a form of “signposting”, rather like indirect questions (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing), verbs with let (see 128. Imperative Verbs in Formal Writing) and sentences before a list (see 122. Signpost Words in Multi-Sentence Lists). Verbs with future meaning typically assume a signposting function in introductory paragraphs at the start of extended academic and business communications like essays, reports and oral presentations, e.g.:
(i) Chapter 1 will clarify the extent of the problem.
The use of will again seems common. Going to is an informal alternative in oral presentations, but should be avoided in formal writing. The present simple tense (clarifies above) is also a possibility. It might still be future-referring, but more arguably is not. The subsequent text is only a future for the reader – not for the writer – and the option of using the present simple could just be a way of allowing writers to impose their own perspective.
Interestingly, abstracts, which also summarise the main features of a message before it is read, seem to prefer the present simple tense to a verb with will. This may be because reading or listening to the associated text is a much less definite future: abstracts are designed to be read by people who are not sure whether or not they need the associated information and are as likely to ignore it as keep reading.
5. Unilateral Plans
I see these as differing from arrangements in not being made cooperatively with someone else. The planned event may be single or repeated within a timetable or suchlike, and the planner may or may not be the subject of the verb. Single events not planned by the verb subject tend to have will, as in these examples:
(j) Drinks will be sold during the interval.
(k) Jones will play at right back.
(l) The visitors will depart at 7.00 a.m.
On the other hand, if the subject is the planner of a single event, the present simple tense seems more possible: depart in (l).
Repeated unilateral plans generally seem to have the present simple tense:
(k) The Sociology lecture is on Friday.
Using will be here would suggest that a single lecture rather than one of a sequence had been planned.
Unilateral plans are probably rare in academic writing, but very common in academic speech and in both written and spoken business communication.
OTHER FUTURE MEANINGS
There are numerous other future meanings, but they seem less likely in professional communication. Many can be read about in mainstream grammar descriptions.
Some of the most important of these meanings include commands, decisions, expectations, intentions and warnings. Commands are mostly associated with imperative verbs or must, but can also have will or even shall (see 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs). Expectations can be introduced with verbs like ANTICIPATE, EXPECT and LOOK FORWARD TO. For advice on using the last of these, see 132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4.