Grammar nonsense 6: future forms

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that EFL students attending a class must be in want of a good grammar explanation. However little known the feelings or views of such students may be on their first entering a classroom, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the ELT profession, it is considered as the right of all teachers to spend time spouting nonsense about grammar”.

So said Jane Austen – well, almost!

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With the return of our grammar nonsense posts, we come to futures. Perhaps a truth somewhat less universally acknowledged – in coursebooks at any rate –  is that the structures used to refer to the future are by no means clearly defined. ‘Mistakes’ connected with the use of, say, ‘will  instead of be going to or the present continuous would rarely be seen by a native speaker (or anyone other fluent user, for that matter) as a mistake based on a concept of meaning. In other words, the listener would in no way be confused as to the intended meaning. Instead, they might just feel that the utterance sounded a little bit odd – and often they wouldn’t even think that.

Bearing this in mind, we should take a step back for a moment and just think about what we tell our students about the meanings of different future structures. Usually, it’s things like this:

  • It’s an arrangement
  • It’s planned
  • It’s an intention
  • It’s a prediction based on present (or past!) evidence
  • It’s a timetabled event
  • It’s a prediction

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I could go on, but you get the idea. We are so familiar with these explanations that we often fail to stop and think about how anyone can possibly tell the difference between these things! Arrangements are clearly planned, or intended, as are timetables! And what prediction is NOT based on some kind of present evidence?

I think the sun is going to shatter into a million pieces and fall like sparkly buttercups.

We can pretty categorically say that the above is not a prediction based on any evidence, but then again, if you were to hear me come up with such a claim in conversation, you would think I was a crazy person and take a long walk around me – or else admire the fact I possessed the imagination of a five-year-old! Oh, and if you’ve been severely affected by the kind of nonsense routinely peddled by EFL material, you might also notice that I used going to there . . . when your books all say I should’ve used will. Lordy Lord!

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Then of course, there’s the question of what the difference is between a plan, an arrangement and an intention. As this clip from the Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon show The Trip shows, we can happily talk about our plans with the present simple: Let us to bed for tomorrow we rise at daybreak! Imagine if they were talking about getting a flight instead of fighting. They would probably ask What time are you getting up? (The present continuous? How can that be? Who did you arrange that with – the airline?). You will also notice that later in the clip they also say tomorrow we will rise and we shall rise … . Has the meaning changed? I think not.

How about these sentences.

I’ll be seeing him tomorrow so I’ll ask him.

I’m going to see him tomorrow so I’ll ask him.

I’ll see him tomorrow so I’ll ask him.

I’m seeing him tomorrow so I’ll ask him

I see him tomorrow so I’ll ask him.

In the sad, sorry days of my youth (and somewhat misguided by Michael Lewis’ Meaning and the English Verb), I used to spend whole classes discussing the fictitious difference in meaning between such sentences and I am ashamed to say I have been drawn into such things since as well . . . despite the fact that they all basically mean the same thing! These days, I think the only one I might – might – bother singling out for any special attention is the last one where it might be assumed this is a weekly meeting I always have – maybe, possibly. But actually, even then, would it make any difference to you as the listener? I think not.

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While humans clearly do possess an innate capacity to see patterns and create meaning, in the end we take what we hear and create that meaning internally for ourselves and it is confirmed or adapted according to our successes or failures in communication. This is why meanings and usage shifts over time. And it’s also why trying to impose meanings on areas of grammar such as this or correcting students on the basis of meaning is somewhat fruitless. Almost inevitably, what happens is that the same examples are used repeatedly (Fess up: how many of you have reached for I think I’m going to sneeze / be sick when trying to explain away ‘predictions based on present evidence’?), while other examples are crafted to match the meaning, resulting in some highly unlikely sentences. One of my favourites is this gem . . . The cars are going to crash!

I’d like to think that if I was in a situation where I needed this sentence and found I had time to say anything at all, my preference would be not to state the bleeding obvious, but rather to go for something more basic and Anglo-Saxon!

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So what to do? I really don’t think there’s an easy answer here. My personal preference would be to present structures as they are used and pretty much only say “This refers to the future”. And taking such an approach, we should be free to give examples of all the different structures from a lower level when they are naturally needed or used. If students ask why one structure is used here and not another, perhaps we should simply return the question and focus on the context it is being used in. This is an approach recommended in an interesting book by Danny Norrington-Davies called From Rules to Reasons.

However. I do understand that pressure to give an explanation (from students, teachers and publishers). If you do fall back on the traditional explanations, I think it’s best to again focus on the reason structures are used in a specific context and emphasize that these things are vague and that we can express the same idea in other ways too. In general, I would like teachers to avoid exercises that ask students to differentiate meanings and would opt instead for texts with natural examples, where students might simply notice the different forms or be tested on how the form works. Other than that, provide repeated opportunity for discussions or tasks that may generate a variety of future forms – and fret less about an area that’s really not worthy of your anxieties!

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3 Responses

  1. Stephen Dodd says:

    So true! What would we do without You?
    Still they “need” an explanation or you’re not doing your job!

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