147. Types of Future Meaning

predicting

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.

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FUTURE MEANINGS IN PROFESSIONAL WRITING

1. Predictions

Predictions are typically statements about a future beyond the control of the person making them. They are quite common in professional writing, but must usually be 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 end next July.

As this and sentence (a) both show, will is a common means of making predictions. However, it is by no means the only possibility. One well-known alternative is going to, commonly preferred when the prediction is being made in the presence of an obvious clue to its being fulfilled, such as bubbles in water predicted to boil.

A problem with both will and going to, however, is that they express certainty when statements about the future can hardly ever be certain (see 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions). The probable reason why they remain common in predictions is that most people know their limitations and understand them correctly as a result.

Nevertheless, there are situations, especially in professional writing, where precision about the future is necessary, so that will becomes inappropriate. One example is controversial predictions, which will be criticised if there is any doubt about their accuracy. The simplest means of achieving greater accuracy is verbs that are grammatically like will but refer to the future in a less definite way. In descending order of prediction strength these are should, may, might and could.

There are some other common types of language too. The certainty of will can be reduced by combining it with a probability adverb like probably, perhaps, possibly, conceivably or probably not. Alternatively, a predicted event or situation can be made the subject of BE in combination with a certainty adjective (or noun) and time adverb, like this:

(d) Interstellar travel is certain (a certainty) in the future.

For a word of caution about in the future, see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1 (#11). Adjectives and nouns of lesser certainty include likely (a likelihood), probable (a probability), possible (a possibility), feasible, doubtful (a doubt) and unlikely. The adjectives and some of the nouns (underlined) are also usable after it is, with the prediction being made in a following that statement (see 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences). For a detailed analysis of this use with possible, see 181. Expressing Possibility.

Finally, predictions can be made by means of special prediction verbs like ENVISAGE, EXPECT, FORECAST, FORESEE, FORETELL, PREDICT and PROPHESY. For them to be prediction-making, as opposed to prediction-reporting, their subject needs to include the maker of the prediction. It could informally be I or we (I predict…), or formally a noun with this (This essay…). Alternatively, a sentence beginning it can be or it is to be can be used:

(e) It is to be expected that El Niño WILL RAISE global temperatures.

In this sentence, there are two prediction-markers: expected and the later will. One other alternative is to make the verb in the prediction begin can be expected to instead of will (El Niño can be expected to raise…). The result is that it is only the prediction verb that is expressing the future meaning. For more on using can to avoid I, see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You” and 107. The Language of Opinions.

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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. Sometimes they are combined with a condition that must be fulfilled before they can be carried out. The condition is likely to be introduced by if or, for promises, provided (see 179. Deeper Meanings of “if”).

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 …).

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3. Arrangements

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.

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4. Imminent Message Content

This means information for readers or listeners about what they are shortly going to read or hear. It is a form of “signposting”, rather like that done with 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 are particularly used for signposting in introductions to extended pieces of academic and business communication 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 and shall (after I) are informal alternatives in oral presentations (see 186. Language in Oral Presentations), but should be avoided in formal writing. The present simple tense (clarifies above) is sometimes found. It might still be future-referring, but arguably is not because the subsequent text is only a future for the reader – not for the writer. It could just be a way of allowing writers to impose their own present-time 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.

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5. Speaker Plans

I see these as differing from arrangements in not being made cooperatively with someone else. They will generally be made clear with will (or shall after I/we). A typical example might be:

(j) Jones will play at right back.

This says the speaker has planned the role of Jones: it implies the words I have decided. If the role of Jones needed to be conveyed by someone else, such as a supporter of Jones’ team, the verb would more probably be is going to play or is playing. Here are some more examples like (j):

(k) Drinks will be sold during the interval.

(l) The visitors will depart at 7.00 a.m.

Note that will in such sentences is not compulsory. If a speaker wishes to play down or mask their involvement in a plan, they can always use the vaguer present simple or present continuous tense instead. The former often suggests timetabled events, like this:

(m) The Sociology lecture is on Friday.

Speaker plans are probably rare in academic writing, but very common in academic speech and in both written and spoken business communication.

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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.

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