Does 'will' *really* mark future reference?



I just heard that will doesn't mark future reference, even though in teaching English it's highly comfortable to think of it as so.

  1. I will find a way to neutralize the bomb.
  2. I'm going to speak to my instructor before doing anything else.
  3. He will have gotten a hang of himself already.

In sentence #1, "will" semantically does mark future reference. However, sentence #2 demonstrates that future can be without "will" and sentence #3 proves that "will" can appear where it's not considered to be referring to the future (i.e. like a modal verb).

So, does 'will' mark future reference? It definitely is taught as such in schools, but I'm becoming skeptical to how helpful a possible oversimplification can be.

Editing since all I'm getting is irrelevant or wrong answers: My real question is about whether "will" should be considered part of the tense system or modal system. I'm not talking about the noun, and I'm looking for technical answers. Please refrain from answering unless you're certain you're asking what's being queried here.


Posted 2015-11-06T15:35:01.723

Reputation: 7 371


A starting point: What's will? on Language Log

– snailplane – 2015-11-06T15:38:51.920

1You said it: "possible oversimplification." Oversimplifications are fine, so long as every is aware that we're oversimplifying, and not stating immutable laws. – J.R. – 2015-11-06T15:53:10.577

@J.R. but is everyone aware? Sadly, I'm pretty sure that's not the case. So, are you implying that it's technically wrong to refer to 'will' as marks future reference? – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T16:04:09.530

I'm not implying it's technically wrong, I'm implying that it could be misleading – especially if we include the word "always" in our assertion. – J.R. – 2015-11-06T16:16:49.957

2You heard wrong. Or you heard only one viewpoint. This subject has been argued for decades if not longer. Instead of posing it on a website full of amateur linguists, you should do some reading in linguistics. You will find that you can only go so far until you realize that there is no answer to this question that satisfies every linguistic theory. In sum, this question is better put on ELU or Linguistics (something I know you don't want to hear). – None – 2015-11-06T19:27:04.497

@User1 I did consider Linguistics.SE, only after I saw the responses I got here. I'll leave it to rest here for a day, then consider migration. And BTW, not everyone here is an amateur linguist . . . You're mistaken at that. – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T19:31:03.360

Will (and shall) are auxiliary verbs for future and also modal verbs. – rogermue – 2015-11-06T21:47:05.087

Do you want to know if "will" should be considered part of the tense system or modal system from a semantic perspective, or from a morphological perspective? It's indisputable that the construction with "will" is morphologically closer to the modal constructions than the past-tense construction. But semantically, it's harder to analyze. "Tense," "Aspect" and "Mood" are all semantically intertwined, even when they are morphologically marked in orthogonal ways. – sumelic – 2015-11-07T06:07:57.290

1@Sumelic I was more interested in a semantic POV. – M.A.R. – 2015-11-07T11:49:30.197



  • Does will mark future reference?

    Sometimes. Probably more often than not. But not always.

  • My real question is about whether will should be considered part of the tense system or modal system.

    Yes. One or the other, and sometimes both.

  • I'm becoming skeptical to how helpful a possible oversimplification can be.

    Skepsis is healthy. But oversimplification is not merely helpful, it is essential to learning, right up to the point where it isn't.

Students and teachers have to start somewhere, and that somewhere has to be at the front end, where the student is in a state of more or less complete simplicity; teachers cannot begin by assuming subtleties the students have not yet achieved. So teachers start with the simple and intuitive division of temporal reference into "past"–"present"–"future". They provide simple and easily grasped handles on the language like werearewill be, which they call "tenses", because they have to call them something. And they carefully avoid defining their terms too narrowly, and carefully shield students from gnarly real-life situations where were marks present tense and will marks modality and are has to be replaced with beuntil they're ready to teach those uses.

It's pretty harmless, as long as the teachers are at that point willing to acknowledge that most of what they've taught is "baby rules" (aliter a pack of lies) which have very little to do with English-as-she-is-actually-spoken, and as long as they have something better and subtler to teach when they reach that point. Granted, few are willing and few do have something better; but it doesn't matter all that much, because when the students reach that point they figure it out for themselves, just as you have done.

Moreover, the students are now beginning to learn EASIAS the way native speakers do: not from grammar books, and certainly not from teachers (who in at least in US high schools know much less about English grammar than, say, your average third-year EFL student), but from speaking and listening and reading and writing. With that, they can build their own grammars from inside the language.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2015-11-06T15:35:01.723

Reputation: 176 469

Yes, if you are teaching English in English to beginning language learners you absolutely must simplify their task with "baby rules". But I think it is wrong to regard such rules as "a pack of lies", since lying implies a deliberate and possibly malicious intention to deceive. What's more not all learners are thoroughly committed to learning to speak English the way native speakers do - cf. the whole English as a lingua franca movement. And other learners are more concerned with writing well or passing English examinations than being taken for a native speaker. – Shoe – 2015-11-07T10:10:11.007

1@Shoe 1) If the teacher knows better, he intends to deceive, for whatever honorable or dishonorable motive. If the teacher does not know better, he cannot take the student beyond the point of the baby rules. 2) I spoke of how, not what, the student learns. The critical point is reached when the student starts actually using the language and finding whatever rules he is going to use in the language instead of bringing them to the language. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2015-11-07T13:48:42.730

We'll have to disagree about whether it is justified to call the simplifications that experts undertake in instructing novices (in English as well as in probably most other areas of expertise - what you designate baby rules) a pack of lies. We'll also have to disagree that baby rules "have very little to do with English-as-she-is-actually-spoken". The baby rule that will is used to refer to future events (e.g. She will graduate in 2017) has validity in EASIAS. It is only a problem if learners are led to believe that will is the only way to refer to future events or ... – Shoe – 2015-11-08T09:04:22.323

... that this is the only use of will. But I thoroughly agree that expertise in a language cannot be taught through grammar lessons and the accumulation of 'rules'. It has to be acquired, as you say, through speaking and listening and reading and writing. – Shoe – 2015-11-08T09:05:54.373


"will + infinitive" expresses future (normally). But there are several possibilities to expressthe future in English, eg to be going to do.

And the modal verb will that originally is connected with volition also has other uses beside the future. All this is explained in the grammar chapter modal verbs in the section will.

Will, Cambridge Dictionary

Will, modal verb, Oald


Posted 2015-11-06T15:35:01.723

Reputation: 8 304

"grammar chapter modal verbs in the section will." -- ? – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T19:07:15.377


Where there's a will, there's a way! And leaving an inheritance in a will are perfect examples of the word "will" having a totally different meaning as a noun. However, when "will" is used as a verb I think it always will imply future tense since it is used many future tense conjugations.


Posted 2015-11-06T15:35:01.723

Reputation: 61

1It's not my will to discuss will (n.) here. This doesn't answer my question. We're wondering whether if the semi-verb "will" should be considered as a part of the tense system or the modal system. – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T17:48:36.787

When I Google "is will a modal verb" and "is will a tense", it appears that "will" is both a modal verb and a tense. Plenty of results to back up both assertions. – GracefulCode – 2015-11-06T18:42:04.627

This question isn't an honest un-researched misunderstanding; it rises from a known and tiring debate in linguistics. So it requires a technical answer. This answer isn't what I was looking for. Honestly, this isn't a question solely being a native speaker is sufficient for answering, unlike many other questions on ELL. – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T19:01:57.727

1@Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. - Please be nicer to our brand-new users when they are trying to help. I don't think any "rudeness" was intended here. Also, if this question requires a more technical answer, perhaps it should have been asked on ELU. – J.R. – 2015-11-06T20:04:21.497

OK @J.R., sorry, I was a bit annoyed and wasn't cautious of what I was saying. But still, the remarks was biting, but not outright offensive. Sometimes words aren't what you want 'em to be. I'm sorry and I apologize anyhow. – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T20:35:02.537


I don't think "will" innately refers to the future like Spanish's future tense does, or at least it didn't originally. I think it's a modal construction that logically happens to point the future very frequently. However I agree that there are some sentences where "will" doesn't necessarily mark the future

The door will not open

However because of repeated use where the action does take place in the future, I think speakers have come to devalue the modal properties of the word, and instead think of it as simply being a marker for the future tense in some contexts. For example,

It will rain tomorrow

There's no volition here.

The answer to your question is totally up to the speaker/listener's interpretation. Perhaps 100 years from now, "gonna" will be considered a future tense marker.

Senjougahara Hitagi

Posted 2015-11-06T15:35:01.723

Reputation: 1 678


One way to talk about future time is to use the modal will.

I will be there.

talks about future time. (It could also be talking about some hypothetical time). But the hypothetical is removed if we say

I will be there tomorrow.

Now, it so happens that one can teach that will (used with a personal subject) to refer to the future stresses one's current resolve to carry out a stated action, but this is gravy.

There are probably about a dozen other ways to refer to future time (for example: am going to; simple present: I am there tomorrow, etc). For other ways, see this ELU blog post.

For a technical view that is contrary to your quoted source see this ELU answer written by a linguist.


Posted 2015-11-06T15:35:01.723


This somehow looks like a repeat of what I said. What I'm asking is "does will innately refer to a future time?" – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T16:07:16.993

Well, I deliberately kept it simple in deference to the thousands of English Language Learners who use this site. For a view contrary to the link you posted, see the answer at ELU.

– None – 2015-11-06T16:18:42.623

You didn't keep it simple, you didn't answer my question. This looks more like an ELL question, hence I'm not flagging for migration to ELU. But what you have written here is more like an elaboration on the background of the question. (What I'm trying to say is that I want to get technical. Being on ELL doesn't always equate keeping stuff simple. There are a bunch of more advanced learners here, even though I'm not one of them.) – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T16:27:23.683

Read the link I provided for a contrarian view that approaches the technical. – None – 2015-11-06T16:33:49.587

There's a reason I asked this question, and did it here. I want technical answers, I could've dug up a thousand links. And that question is by StoneyB, the person who wrote the tag wiki for "tense" on ELL. But I want the garden here, for others to use; and I'm not asking for an address. – M.A.R. – 2015-11-06T16:36:32.553

1I have edited my answer to my satisfaction so that it answers your question in what I believe is the most helpful way for the mass of both learners and teachers on this site. You are free to wait for other answers. Meanwhile to insist that the topic be discussed on ELL when it is already under discussion in ELU may be seen as misplaced determination. – None – 2015-11-06T16:44:27.543

1@Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. It doesn't repeat what you said. This answer is wrong rather than simplified. "Do you think it'll rain tomorrow?" certainly doesn't stress one's current resolve to carry out a stated action. The core meaning here is modal, and although this answer mentions the word "modal" once, it seems to miss the point entirely. – snailplane – 2015-11-06T17:40:37.243