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What Is a Future Tense?

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  • Written By: Matt Hubbard
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 11 August 2014
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The future tense of a verb is a verb form that indicates action yet to occur. In English, it is generally indicated by combining the present tense of a verb with an auxiliary verb and/or an adverb that establishes the time of the action. Two special cases of the future tense are the hypothetical, which can be used to indicate something that was possibly in the future at some time in the past, and the future perfect, which is used to indicate something that will be in the past at some time in the future. The hypothetical is generally indicated with the helping verb "would" as in, “Brian said he would come to the party.” The future perfect is created by combining a future tense helping verb with a past participle, as in “At some point, we may have solved this riddle.”

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An auxiliary verb, also known as a helping verb, adds to the main verb in a sentence to create a verb phrase. The auxiliary verb form most often associated with the future tense is "will," as in the sentence, “Who will answer my question?” Traditionally, the helping verb "shall" should be used in place of "will" for first person speech, as in “I shall not surrender,” but modern usage has made will and shall interchangeable. The phrase "is going to" is also usable for "will." Other helping verbs such as "may," "might," "should" and "must" are used to indicate the future with various degrees of immediacy and certainty of whether the action will occur.

Future tense can also be indicated by adding an adverb to the present tense; either a word like "soon" or "tomorrow," or a adverbial phrase like "at midnight tonight" or "when the bough breaks," allows the context provided by the adverb to indicate when the action is expected. Both an auxiliary verb and an adverb may be present, as in “Tomorrow the company will answer all your questions,” or the adverb may be the only indicator within the sentence, as in “The ship to Bermuda departs tomorrow.”

Future tense can be difficult to translate, as various languages handle it differently. Classical Latin and some other romance languages have specific verb conjugation forms to indicate the future tense. Many other European languages have a specific auxiliary they use, with less variety of future forms. Some languages do not even have a future tense. For example, ancient Hebrew had tenses for complete and incomplete actions and depended on context to distinguish between present acts, such as “I am traveling to Jerusalem,” and future acts, such as “I will travel to Jerusalem.” As a result of these differences, translations of the future tense, particularly by novice speakers or automated translation can sound stilted and awkward.

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