Wednesday 4 August 2010

On the distant future

A correspondent writes to ask if the English present progressive with future meaning can be used to talk about the distant future. As an example, he cites his father getting retired ten years from now. Can he say: 'I’m setting up my own business when I get retired'?

All the standard accounts stress the imminence of the future event, when using this tense form. Quirk et al (§4.44) do give a non-imminent example:

I'm leaving the university in two years' time.

They stress the need to have the more distant time explained in the context (e.g. when I've finished my studies). But the notion of imminence applies here too. To say I'll be leaving the university in two years' time is a straightforward statement about a future event. To turn this into the present suggests that the speaker sees this event as having some sort of current relevance. The notion of 'current relevance' is usually found with reference to the meaning of the present perfect; but it applies here too.

How to define this relevance? The critical point is that the use of the present progressive implies an element of forward planning. Quirk et al describe it thus: 'future arising from present arrangement, plan, or programme'. It refers to actions brough about by human endeavour. So it isn't possible to say The grass is growing next week. And to say He's dying next week could only refer to an execution. Rodney Huddleston makes a similar point about this form, in the Cambridge Grammar (§4.2.4): 'the future is determinable from the state of the world now'. In other words, there's always an element of scheduling.

So, with these considerations in mind, there's nothing at all wrong with my correspondent's example. The planning element is very much in the forefront of his father's mind.


David Crosbie said...

Evangelists look to a possibly distant ultimate future:

Are you going to Heaven when you die?

Claudia said...

Marking exercises on the future is one of the most difficult tasks of my job... :-)