Understanding Will

One of the areas of grammar which causes most problems for learners is that of describing future events, and one of the most common errors in this area is the constant over-use of will. What does will actually mean? This article will argue that it is not a future form at all, and certainly not, as many textbooks and teachers still suggest, “The future tense” in English.

The verb will is a modal auxiliary which is used to express two concepts or “notions” – prediction/deduction and volition. For example :
Prediction/Deduction : I think we’ll probably win.
Volition : I think I’ll go for a walk.

These two notions (and therefore the verb will) can be applied to events which are past, present, future, or timeless in the sense of being universal truths, states or habitual actions – for example, a statement like Water freezes at 0°C is timeless. In fact, as we shall see, in English it is rarely the verb form itself which refers to time. The verb system in English mainly expresses other notions, and the time of the event is more likely to be expressed by adverbials or contextual elements. This should become clear as we look at the two uses of will, and why it can’t be said to express future time.


The use in English of two different words obscures the fact that they are actually exactly the same thing. If you predict or deduce something, what happens? Basically you look at some factual or reliable evidence (or evidence that you believe to be factual, or reliable) and use it to draw a logical conclusion. So, the weather forecaster who says There’ll be heavy rain in the west of England tomorrow is basing her conclusion on, for example, satellite pictures of clouds, her knowledge of current wind speed etc. Similarly, the fortune teller who says You'll marry a tall, dark, handsome stranger is basing his prediction on his analysis of the lines in your hand or the shapes in his crystal ball.

Or, if you hear the doorbell ring and say “That will be Mary”, you are basing your conclusion on the fact that earlier Mary said “I’ll drop round at eight o’clock” and, looking at the clock you see that it’s now 7.55.

In English, we usually use the word prediction to refer to future events and deduction for present and past events – but in fact there is no difference in what is happening in the two cases, and the notions of prediction/deduction/conclusion are identical. From now on I will use the three terms interchangeably.

Will is generally used when the deduction is a mainly mental concept (that's why it's usually used with I think, I expect, maybe, probably etc – it’s only an idea, so the speaker might be wrong and tends to qualify the assertion): I know A is true; I know B is true. Therefore I deduce C to be true. (1) For example :

A : Where's David?
B : Oh he's on holiday. He'll be on some tropical beach somewhere. (= I know David is on holiday. I know he always goes to exotic places and loves the sea. Therefore I predict that he's on the beach at the moment)

In terms of the example at the beginning of this article, I think we’ll win : I know my team is fairly strong; I know the other team has three players unavailable through injury. Therefore I predict that we’ll probably win the match.

Notice that the fact that the match is future is unimportant. In my previous examples about Mary and David, it was a present event – Mary is at the door now; David is on holiday and (I conclude) on the beach at the moment.
However, the event could also have been past. If I say Janet will have arrived by now I am telling you that the event has already happened. But will is used to indicate that it is only a deduction. I don’t know for a fact that she has arrived, but I know she left here fifty minutes ago and I know her journey home takes about half an hour. Therefore I can predict that her arrival is now a past event. Again, will tells us nothing about the time – but only that we are drawing a conclusion.
To know the time of the event, we need to look at the infinitive verb which describes the event itself, and/or the time adverbial (at the moment, by now, next week etc) or contextual clues. For some more examples, consider he’ll arrive or he’ll be eating. The infinitives allow us to rule out a past event, but even then we still need further context to decide the exact time.

a) It’s always the same. I’ll just have got everything organised and he’ll arrive and change everything. Time of the event = habitual or “timeless”
b) I expect he’ll arrive about two this afternoon. Time of the event = future
c) Don’t phone them now – they’ll be eating. Time of the event = present
d) A : I’d invite you to dinner, but I know you’re on a diet. / B : Yes, but it’s nearly finished. This time next week I’ll be eating normally again. Time of the event =future

In each case the time of the event is established by the adverbial : always / about two this afternoon ; now/this time next week. Similarly the perfect infinitives (have done/have been doing) signal anterior time – something that happens before a point of reference. But the time of that point, and therefore of the event, can differ. Look at the different times which events described by the phrase will have finished may have:
After about ten minutes the onions will have finished cooking. (The event is timeless – it’s true any time you follow the recipe)
They will have finished by now. (The event is past)
They think they will have finished by next Tuesday. (The event is future)
In these sentences will establishes that the speaker is making a prediction, the perfect infinitive indicates that the action happens before a certain point in time, and the adverbial tells us when that point is and therefore whether the event is timeless, past or future.


Volition is a matter of expressing what you want, intend, insist on or are willing to do (NB : willing – and think also about expressions such as strong-willed, he didn’t leave a will etc). So for instance :

She will keep leaving the door open – it drives me mad! (She insists on leaving the door open)
Paul will never eat his greens! (= he always refuses to eat his greens)

As the gloss for each sentence shows, the time of the events is timeless not future. This is signalled by the meaning of keep doing in one case and the adverbial never in the other.
It is this use of will which is used in requests : Will you answer the phone please? (literally : are you willing to answer the phone?). Turn this into the affirmative and it becomes I’ll answer the phone, which is often described as being a “spontaneous decision to act”, or an expression of your intentions as you make them. This is clear from the example at the beginning of the article : I think I’ll go for a walk.

What time is involved in these last examples? The events are clearly future, even if a very immediate future. But again, we mustn’t confuse the fact that the event itself may be future without that concept necessarily being conveyed by the verb. Many of the labels that have been applied to verbs in English - simple present/simple past/future etc - are hangovers from the analysis of Latin which saw a one-to-one relationship between verb form and the expression of time concepts. But even if this was true, English is not Latin. The English verb system works in a different way and expresses different meanings. If we want our learners to use English verbs in general, and will in particular accurately, we need to stop presenting notions such as volition, deduction etc as if they are secondary to time meanings. They need to see that these notions are in fact predominant and that it is the time dimension which is secondary, or in many cases immaterial, to the verb.


(1) The expression Be Going to can also express both prediction/deduction and volition, but its use differs from that of will. We will consider this in a future article.
Photo provided under Creative commons Licence by cackhanded via flickr

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