Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The changing future: competition, specialization and reorganization in the contemporary English future temporal reference system 1


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.

Hide All

We 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.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Guy Bailey , Tom Wikle , Jan Tinnery & Lori Sand . 1991. The apparent time construct. Language Variation and Change 3 (3), 241–64.

Bridget Copley . 2001. Be going to as a case of High Aspect. In Rachel Hastings , Brendan Jackson & Zsofia Zvolenszky (eds.), Proceedings of SALT XI, 95113. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Alexandra D'Arcy & Sali A. Tagliamonte . 2015. Not always variable: Probing beneath the vernacular grammar. Language Variation and Change 27, 255–85.

Charles Carpenter Fries . 1925. The periphrastic future with shall and will in modern English. Publications of the Modern Linguistic Association of America 40, 9631024.

Liliane Haegeman . 1989. Be going to and will: A pragmatic account. Journal of Linguistics 25, 291317.

Paul J. Hopper 1991. On some principles of grammaticization. In Elizabeth Closs Traugott & Bernd Heine (eds.), Approaches to grammaticalization, vol. 1: Focus on theoretical and methodological issues, 1735. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Paul J. Hopper & Elizabeth Closs Traugott . 2003. Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richard D. Janda 2001. Beyond ‘pathways’ and ‘unidirectionality’: On the discontinuity of language transmission and the counterability of grammaticalization. Language Sciences 23, 265340.

Anthony S. Kroch 1989. Reflexes of grammar in patterns of language change. Language Variation and Change 1, 199244.

William. Labov 1982. Building on empirical foundations. In Winfred P. Lehmann & Yakov Malkiel (eds.), Perspectives on historical linguistics, 1792. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Geoffrey Leech , Marianne Hundt , Christian Mair & Nicholas Smith . 2009. Change in contemporary English: A grammatical study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Christian Mair . 2004. Corpus linguistics and grammaticalisation theory: Statistics, frequencies and beyond. In Hans Lindqvist & Christian Mair (eds.), Corpus approaches to grammaticalization in English, 121–50. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nadja Nesselhauf . 2012. Mechanisms of language change in a functional system. Journal of Historical Linguistics 2, 83132.

Heike Pichler & Levey Stephen . 2011. In search of grammaticalization in synchronic dialect data: General extenders in north-east England. English Language and Linguistics 15, 441–71.

Shana Poplack & Danielle Turpin . 1999. Does the FUTUR have a future in (Canadian) French? Probus 11, 134–64.

Benedikt Szmrecsanyi . 2003. ‘Be going to’ versus ‘will/shall’: Does syntax matter? Journal of English Linguistics 31, 295323.

Sali A. Tagliamonte 1998. Was/were variation across the generations: View from the city of York. Language Variation and Change 10 (2), 153–91.

Sali A. Tagliamonte 2006b. Analysing sociolinguistic variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sali A. Tagliamonte 2008. So different and pretty cool! Recycling intensifiers in Toronto, Canada. English Language and Linguistics 12, 361–94.

Sali A. Tagliamonte & Harald R. Baayen . 2012. Models, forests and trees of York English: Was/were variation as a case study for statistical practice. Language Variation and Change 24, 135–78.

Sali A. Tagliamonte & Alexandra D'Arcy . 2007. The modals of obligation/necessity in Canadian perspective. English World-Wide, 28, 4787.

Sali A. Tagliamonte & Alexandra D'Arcy . 2009. Peaks beyond phonology: Adolescence, incrementation, and language change. Language 85, 58108.

Sali A. Tagliamonte & Derek Denis . 2010. The stuff of change: General extenders in Toronto, Canada. Journal of English Linguistics 38, 335–68.

Sali A. Tagliamonte , Mercedes Durham & Jennifer Smith . 2014. Grammaticalization at an early stage: Future ‘be going to’ in conservative British dialects. English Language and Linguistics 18, 75108.

Rena Torres Cacoullos & James A. Walker . 2009. The present of the English Future: Grammatical variation and collocations in discourse. Language 85, 321–54.

Elizabeth Closs. Traugott 2003. Constructions in grammaticalization. In Brian D. Joseph & Richard D. Janda (eds.), The handbook of historical linguistics, 624–47. Oxford: Blackwell.

Suzanne Evans Wagner & Gillian Sankoff . 2011. Age grading in the Montréal French inflected future. Language Variation and Change 23, 275313.

John Whyte . 1944. The future tense in English future and modal auxiliaries: ‘Shall’ and ‘will’, ‘to be going’. College English 5, 333–7.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

English Language & Linguistics
  • ISSN: 1360-6743
  • EISSN: 1469-4379
  • URL: /core/journals/english-language-and-linguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 12
Total number of PDF views: 66 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 412 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 31st January 2017 - 21st September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.