Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Days of Future Past, Past of Future Days

Days of Future Past: It's not just the subtitle of the new X-Men movie that recently opened; it's an invitation to explore some of the lesser-traveled corridors in the English verb tense system.

Consider this photo caption from a 2005 article Newsweek (which I actually found via the Corpus of Contemporary American English):

Lennon and Ono filming a video for 'Double Fantasy.' He would be dead in less than two weeks.

Let's call the time that the picture was taken—that is, the time that the caption is inviting us to think about—the anchor time. Let's call December 8, 1980, the date of John Lennon's murder and the time that is actually referred to in He would be dead in less than two weeks, the event time. With respect to the anchor time, which is in the past, the event time is in the future. There's actually a special name among grammarians for this kind of situation. Do you want to hear it? It's pretty technical.

OK, here it is: future-in-the-past. It's also called the historic future, but future-in-the-past seems to be the preferred term.

Among the admittedly few languages that I know much about, English comes the closest to having a dedicated verb tense to expressing future-in-the-past. This is made possible because of the strategy English uses to refer to future time. Although you probably learned to think of forms such as will go as the future tense, many linguists don't agree. As I wrote a few years ago, summarizing the view taken in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

One claim that will rock the world of anyone who has gotten comfortable with grammar as taught in traditional grammar books: English has no future tense! Sure, it can talk about future time, but it does it with the present tense (we leave tomorrow), or workarounds like is going to and the modal auxiliary will. She will be here tomorrow? Present tense. And the formerly troublesome She said she would be here tomorrow? Not a problem anymore: would be is in the past tense, not to express past time, but just because English uses the past tense to accomplish the required backshifting in sentences like these.

If English had a single-word (or inflectional) future tense, as languages such as French do, future-in-the-past would be less straightforward. To show how, a website for learners of French gives the example, The king would die in 1457. In French, he/she will die is mourra. The French translation of The king would die in 1457 is simply le roi mourra en 1457—the same as the translation of The king will die in 1457. English, on the other hand, takes will and puts it into the past tense: would.

You might have noticed that the future-in-the-past example She said she would be here tomorrow is different from He would be dead in less than two weeks. In the would be here tomorrow example, would be is in the past tense in order to match the past tense of She said, a grammatical phenomenon that CGEL refers to as backshifting. (It's also known as sequence of tenses.) In English, it's still a case of future-in-the-past, and uses would just like our John Lennon example. In French, though, according to the language-learning website, this kind of future-in-the-past involving backshifting would call for the French conditional tense, showing once again that English has the edge over French in talking about future-in-the-past.

Even having a multi-word (or analytic) future tense instead of an inflectional one doesn't guarantee that a language will have a simple means of showing future-in-the-past. German, like English, has an analytic future tense, but still doesn't have a way of indicating future-in-the-past. If you speak a little German, you might be interested in this discussion of how would go in the sentence He went to the supermarket to buy some groceries and took his briefcase with him because he would go straight to work afterwards doesn't have a straightforward translation into German.

Enough about future-in-the-past. What about past-in-the-future? What about sentences like this one from a 2006 issue of Popular Science, also found in COCA:

By the time we succeed in building such machines, we will have become part machine ourselves.

This sentence, by the way, was written by Ray Kurzweil, the guy responsible for the word singularity coming to mean the time when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence—a topic for another occasion. Regarding verb tense, the anchor time is the time when we've succeeded in building these singularity-marking machines, and the event time is the time when we've become part machine. Unlike in the John Lennon example, here the event time is in the past relative to the anchor time, which is in the future.

The tense for this has a much better-known name: the future perfect. It's one of a family of tenses that allow us to discuss event times that are prior to anchor times. Of course, if we're not considering will become to be a true future tense, then will have become isn't a true future perfect tense, either. It's just a present perfect tense that happens to involve the modal verb will. However, unlike the future-in-the-past, other languages do have inflectional future perfect tenses. In Latin, for example, we will have become is abierimus.

Future-in-the-past, past-in-the-future (or future perfect, if you wish) … why stop there? What about an event time that's in the past relative to an anchor time that's also in the past—past-in-the-past, if you will? Actually, we have a tense for that; it's the past perfect, as in He had hidden the ring in the refrigerator before she arrived for dinner. Other languages have this tense, too.

All right then, how about an event time that's in the future relative to an anchor time that's also in the future—a future-in-the-future? Now there's a tense that English doesn't have. In fact, the only language I know of that does have an inflectional way to do this is spoken Esperanto. I found this out in the solution to one of the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad puzzles from 2012, where they explain that La kapro man─Łontos means "The goat will be going to eat" or "The goat will be about to eat." (Actually, I didn't need that answer key. Just so you know, I totally figured it out myself when I did the puzzle.)

Hey, where are you going? We're just getting started! Let's see, When we saw him, he said that one week later, he would be about to have been going to finish his remodeling project. Can I get an event time?

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.