An Interesting Use of the Future Tense

rogersgeorge on February 28th, 2017

I generally advocate not using the future tense in expository writing, saying that you should use the present tense for customary actions no matter when the action happens. But here’s a usage that I haven’t seen for a while. It hinges on context, in this case temporal context. First the quote:


Pope Julius II dies. He will lay in rest in a huge tomb sculptured by Michelangelo.

First, of course, let’s ignore that they used the wrong verb, “lay.” It should be LIE in rest!!! harrumpf.

Okay, on to the lesson.

This is a line from a this-day-in-history-type post from another site. In effect, the line says “Today five hundred years ago…” Also in effect, the sentence is a headline. Both of these usages pull the chronological context to now, and in terms of now, he won’t be interred for at least a day or so.

So in that context, the interment is in the future, and it certainly won’t be a customary action but a, well, once-in-a-lifetime event, so you can get away with using the future tense.

You would also be perfectly correct casting the whole sentence in the past tense, keeping yourself in the 21st century:

On this day in 1513, Pope Julius II died. They intered his body in a huge tomb sculptured by Michaelangelo.

But that doesn’t convey the hint that it was a while before the body entered the tomb, which wasn’t completed for more than 30 years. And today the body is in St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m not certain that he ever even occupied the tomb! Not that that has anything to do with grammar…

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It’s not Telling the Future

rogersgeorge on June 13th, 2016

Some expository writing is called technical writing.  Other types include essays, theses, and non-fiction articles. This rule applies particularly to technical writing, but it has its place anywhere you mention a result. Here’s the rule:

Use the present tense whenever you describe customary behavior, even if it takes place in the future.

The future is for when the time is important, when you want to be vague, or to add emotional emphasis.

A couple examples:

  • When you turn the knob clockwise, the volume gets louder.
  • Press Enter. The cursor moves to the beginning of the next line.
  • Mercury will pass in front of the sun in thirteen years. (Present tense also works for this one if the context is the recurring behavior of celestial events.)
  • Next Tuesday the axe will fall.
  • If you turn the knob clockwise, the volume will get louder someday.
  • I’ll mow the grass
  • If I walk in that poison ivy, I will get a rash!

Rule of thumb: If you can use the present instead of future, use the present.

The rule used to be that you use “shall” with the second and third person (you, he, she, it, they) and “will” for the first person (I, we). Mercifully, that rule has gone by the wayside and we use “will” for everybody.

What happened to “shall”? It’s used for requirements, as if it were an imperative.

  • The hull shall withstand incident pressure of 500 lb/square inch.
  • All players shall wear the complete team uniform.
  • You shall be home before midnight.

Well, you don’t see that last example so much any more, either.

Getting verbs right part 2

rogersgeorge on February 12th, 2012

First, a little linguistics lesson. If you want, you can skip to the last two paragraphs.

These folks haven't discovered the joys of linguistics yet

Hebrew doesn’t have tenses the way English does. Hebrew has aspect. Aspect has to do with whether what the verb describes is over with or not. The perfective aspect translates pretty easily into our simple past (He ran). After all, if an action is over with, it’s in the past, right? And the imperfective aspect goes pretty well with our  present progressive (He is running). (Greek has a past tense called the aorist that has this perfective aspect, equivalent to our simple past; and an imperfective past tense equivalent to our past progressive, “He was running.”) Here are a few examples:

Hebrew: katal—English: he killed. Hebrew: okal (pronounced okayl)—English: he is eating.  Hebrew doesn’t have a way to say “he eats.” (As far as I know, but we translate it that way a lot.)

We have aspect in English, too but we don’t usually call it that—partly, I suppose, because we have some verb forms that don’t quite fit. Some of our verb forms do, though. Our simple past fits into the perfective aspect, too. And the progressive tenses are all imperfective regardless of when they happen. I am running and I was running are both imperfective.

All that to introduce today’s lesson, how to use the past perfect and present perfect tenses, which show both aspects!

The last two paragraphs:

1. The past perfect says that something was done and then ended in the past.

He had entertained thoughts of being the winner until he saw the score.

The trick to using the past perfect is you need to make some indication of when the deed ended, not just when it happened. In this case, it’s the phrase “until he saw the score.” Here’s the rule: if you don’t state or clearly imply when the deed ended, use the simple past. For example, “Yesterday he entertained thoughts of winning.” You’re saying when he did it, but not when he stopped. Simple past. Let’s turn the rule around: If you use the past perfect, indicate when the deed ended.

2. The present perfect means that something began in the past and continues until now.

He has entertained thoughts of winning ever since he began training. Also: Ever since he began training, he has entertained thoughts of winning.

The trick with the present perfect is that you need to indicate when the deed started. In this case, it’s the phrase “ever since he started training.” If you don’t give an indication of when it started, consider rewriting your sentence.

I won’t get into the perfect progressive tenses, which emphasize the imperfective aspect even more. (“He has been entertaining” and “He had been entertaining,” if you’re curious.)

And we’ll save the future perfect for a future post.