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The changing future: competition, specialization and reorganization in the contemporary English future temporal reference system

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 January 2017

Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria, PO Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria BC V8W 2Y2,
Department of Linguistics, University of Toronto, 100 St George Street, Room 4077, Sidney Smith Hall, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3H1,


The English future temporal reference system has long been recognized as a variable system undergoing change. The main variants in contemporary English (will and be going to) have both been argued to have gone through (and to potentially still be undergoing) grammaticalization. At the same time, be going to has been gradually increasing in frequency relative to will over the last 500 years. However, investigation of the ongoing development of this system has been sparse. This article makes use of a large contemporary sociolinguistic corpus of a mainstream variety of North American English and the apparent-time construct. Several factors that have been implicated in the development of this system (Sentence Type, Clause Type, Proximity, Verb Type, and the Animacy and Grammatical Person of the Subject) are considered and a multiplex series of changes are uncovered. Underlying an overall, albeit slow, change in frequency towards be going to, we find evidence for specialization of one or the other variant in different linguistic contexts, neutralization of a constraint consistent with ongoing loss of variant nuances through semantic bleaching, and the persistence of constraints consistent with morphological doublet competition.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for Postdoctoral Fellowship no. 756-2015-0557 (to Denis) and Research Grants from 2001 to the present (to Tagliamonte). We would also like to thank our colleagues from the University of Toronto Language Variation and Change Group for their suggestions, especially J. K. Chambers, Aaron Dinkin, Matt Hunt Gardner, Ruth Maddeaux, Alex Motut and Naomi Nagy. An earlier version of this manuscript was presented at LSA in Minneapolis (2014), where we gained important insights from questions and comments from the audience, especially Bronwyn Bjorkman and Brian Joseph. Lastly, we'd like to thank our editor, Bernd Kortmann, and two anonymous ELL reviewers for their invaluable comments and suggestions.


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