Skip to main content Accessibility help

Future obligations



This article reflects on a double interpretation of English constructions containing the combined expression will have to. As I will show, illocutions involving sentences of the type ‘NP will have to VP’ can be interpreted as either (i) predicting future enforcing circumstances that trigger a future obligation or (ii) reporting such circumstances as currently in force at speech time. Once I sketch the different semantic elements at play in a Kratzerian framework, I cast doubt on some current views on the so-called modal–tense interaction. As I will show, one way to fully account for the availability of both readings is by assuming a semantic temporal underspecification as to when the triggering circumstances in the conversational background are initially in force. This raises important theoretical caveats for semantic analyses in the field, particularly for those that equate the semantics of the future with prediction. As the article shows, such a widespread assumption can be contended by a dynamic account of obligational ascriptions, according to which their different illocutionary forces can be derived from the contextual change potential of its primitive (and admittedly underspecified) future semantics. Ultimately, the paper voices support for the view that future semantics must not be equated with prediction.


Corresponding author

Author’s address: The University of Manchester, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL,


Hide All

I thank three anonymous reviewers whose helpful comments greatly improved several aspects of this article. I am especially grateful to Martina Faller for numerous revisions of previous versions. Her insightful comments were crucial for pursuing an analysis despite the difficulties one inevitably faces when addressing these issues. I am also grateful to Graham Stevens, Delia Bentley, Eva Schultze-Berndt, Norman Yeo and to the audience of the Semantic Lab at the University of Manchester for helpful comments and feedback. All errors are my own.



Hide All
Abusch, Dorit. 1997. Sequence of tense and temporal de re . Linguistics & Philosophy 20, 150.
Abusch, Dorit. 1985. On verbs and times. Ph.D dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Condoravdi, Cleo. 2002. Temporal interpretation of modals: Modals for the present and the past. In Beaver, David I., Kaufmann, Stefan, Clark, Brady Z. & Casillas Martinez, Luis D. (eds.), The construction of meaning, 5988. Standford: CSLI Publications.
Enç, Murvet. 1996. Tense and modality. In Lappin, Shalom (ed.), Handbook of contemporary semantic theory, 345358. Oxford: Blackwell.
Fuentes, Pablo. 2019. Predictive illocutions and conversational scores. Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations 18, 736.
Fuentes, Pablo. in prep. Unachievable Duties. Unpublished manuscript.
Gennari, Silvia P. 2003. Tense meanings and temporal interpretations. Journal of Semantics 20, 3571.
Hacquard, Valentine. 2006. Aspects of modality. Ph.D. dissertation, MIT.
Hacquard, Valentine. 2009. On the interaction of aspect and modal auxiliaries. Linguistics and Philosophy 32, 279312.
Hacquard, Valentine. 2010. On the event relativity of modal auxiliaries. Natural Language Semantics 18.1, 79114.
Hacquard, Valentine. 2011. Modality. In Maienborn, Claudia, von Heusinger, Klaus & Portner, Paul (eds.), Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning, 14841515. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Hacquard, Valentine. 2016. Modals: Meaning categories?In Blaszczak, Joanna, Giannakidou, Anastasia, Klimek-Jankowska, Dorota & Migdalski, Krzysztof (eds.), Mood, aspect, modality revisited, 4574. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Heim, Irene. 1992. Presupposition projection and the semantics of attitude verbs. Journal of Semantics 9, 183221.
Kratzer, Angelika. 1998. More structural analogies between pronouns and tenses. Semantics & Linguistic Theory 8, 92110.
Kratzer, Angelika. 2011. What “can” can mean. Lectures notes, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Kratzer, Angelika. 2012. Modals and conditionals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Laca, Brenda. 2008. On modal tenses and tensed modals. Ms., Universit Paris 8, CNRS.
Matthewson, Lisa. 2012. On the (non-)future of modals. Proceedings of sinn und bedeutung 16, vol. 2, 431446. Cambridge, MA: MIT Working Papers in Linguistics.
Matthewson, Lisa. 2013. Gitksan modals. International Journal of American Linguistics 79.3, 349394.
Partee, Barbara. 1973. Some structural analogies between tenses and pronouns in English. Journal of Philosophy 70, 601609.
Portner, Paul. 2009. Modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stalnaker, Robert. 1999. Context and content: Essays on intentionality in speech and thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stowell, Tim. 2012. Syntax. In Binnick, Robert (ed.), The Oxford handbook of tense and aspect, 184211. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stowell, Tim. 2014. Capturing simultaneity: A commentary on the paper by Hamida Demirdache and Myriam Uribe-Etxebarria. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 32, 897915.
Zagona, Karen. 1990. Times and Temporal Argument Structure. Ms., University of Washington, Washington.


Future obligations



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.