Presenting the future

In an article in Slate that makes rather much of a little interesting observation in television news topic introduction syntax, Michael Kinsley tosses in this remark: “Long part of vernacular English: referring to the future as the present.”

I think it’s fair to guess that Michael Kinsley has never actually studied the topic, nor really spent all that much time thinking about it. The truth is that English, not just vernacular but all sorts, use present-tense inflectional forms to refer to pretty much everything that’s not the past – even our “future tense” (which we use only sometimes) is really a present auxiliary plus an infinitive. (I discuss this in a bit more depth in “How to explain grammar.”)

But that doesn’t mean we’re referring to the future as the present any more than saying “two fish” refers to the plural as a singular. It just means we have a semantic distinction that is not matched by a strict formal distinction. As with many things, we use our linguistic bits more loosely – English is a real ductape and WD-40 kind of language. Look, Chinese doesn’t have tense inflections at all, but that doesn’t mean that Chinese speakers are talking about everything as though it’s happening right now. Context!

Here’s a little poem, from my forthcoming Songs of Love and Grammar, illustrating our common use of present-tense forms to talk about the future and about timeless and durable states.

Christmas present

Now, Christmas has twelve days, of which the first one is tomorrow,
and I’m giving to my true love all that I can beg or borrow.
She knows that I’m a poet, so I’m giving her my words;
I know that she’s allergic, so I’m giving her no birds –
no swans, nor geese, nor turtledoves, nor even partridge one;
I know she’s introverted – lords and ladies are no fun.
Loud noises give her headaches. Drummers? Pipers? Please, not now!
And I’ll give her maids a-milking when she wants to have a cow.
But every year I give her something more than just a rhyme,
and I hope that she says yes to what I’m giving her this time:
on Christmas she is getting all the joy that I can bring,
for tomorrow I am giving her not five, but one gold ring.
She knows I don’t have money, but she knows she has my love;
with her I know I’m gifted by an angel from above.
So tomorrow I am proving what tonight I’m here to tell:
there’s nothing like the present to begin the future well.

3 responses to “Presenting the future

  1. Well done verse insoired by an over-used holiday trope!

  2. My send finger is too fast; that’s “inspired.”

  3. When I was little and asked my great-aunt when some eagerly expected treat would be arriving, her answer was ‘Presently’, meaning at some indefinite time in the not too distant future.

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