Short answer: Because using the present tense is so much easier for Germans.
In English, we can say things like He is going to the shops. There, he will be buying some chocolate. But he is not going to buy any fruit. After that, he will have a think about what to do next.
There are so many ways to express that things are going to happen. In German on the other hand, there is only one future tense, and it’s barely used.
What does the future in German look like?
The German future tense is formed by using the conjugated form of:
werden + an infinitive at the end of the sentence.
Ich werde morgen schwimmen gehen. (= I will go for a swim tomorrow.)
Er wird nicht in Urlaub fahren. (= He won’t go on holiday.)
Stick to the present tense in German
But guess what? Germans don’t really say Ich werde morgen schwimmen gehen. But how do Germans express these sentences, if not by saying I will do something? The answer is as simple as the tense they use:
Germans will use the present tense instead.
Ich gehe morgen schwimmen. (Lit.: I go swimming tomorrow.)
Er fährt nicht in Urlaub. (Lit.: He doesn’t drive/go on holiday.)
Germans will simply use the present tense which translates literally to the following: I go swimming tomorrow. The word tomorrow ensures that everyone knows when your swim is going to happen.
On the other hand, if our speaker simply said:
Ich gehe schwimmen. (= I go swimming.)
The following question arises in order to remove doubt:
Wann gehst du schwimmen? (= When are you going to go for your swim?)
To avoid questions about when something is going to happen, just give your sentences a bit of context and everything will be ok. In a second, I’ll tell you how to wrap your sentences in more context.
The future – What a stress!
The German future tense is barely used because it makes people wait forever. When using the future tense, the main verb, the verb that tells us what the action is (to swim, to walk, to travel, etc.), comes last in our sentence.
As a result, we’ll have to wait for the entire sentence to finish before we know what the speaker is going to do.
This can take quite a while:
(= I will go to Sydney tomorrow but maybe not before next week, and only if my boyfriend has time, and I will have to have time off work too and my friends as well.)
Can you tell the difference between the German and the English sentence? Our English sentence lets us know straight away that somebody is going to Sydney. The contrary is true for our German sentence because we have to wait for this person to finish the entire thought.
Consequently, a bit of time has to pass by until we are finally allowed to know about their plans.
Mark Twain may have been right
This is exactly what Marc Twain (“The Awful German language”) complained about when he said:
“The Germans have an inhuman way of cutting up their verbs. Now a verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when it’s all together. It’s downright inhuman to split it up.
But that’s just what those Germans do.
They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German.”
Don’t get confused. Usually, our main verb comes in second position. Only when using the perfect tense (Ich habe schon gegessen. – I’ve eaten.), modal verbs (Ich kann gut schwimmen. – I can swim well.), in subordinate clauses (Ich gehe jetzt nach Hause, weil ich müde bin. – I’m going home because I’m really tired.) or like here, the future tense with werden, we will have to place our actual verb at the very end.
(You will find more on word order in German here.)
What’s the German future tense for then?
Why does this future tense exist in German, when apparently no one ever uses it?
The German future tense is still used
- in a few sayings and to emphasise assumptions.
Sie wird wieder die ganze Zeit nur reden. (= She will be talking the whole time.)
- to avoid misunderstandings.
After all, please don’t let the last point misguide you. Giving your sentences some context will most likely avoid misunderstandings.
It’s all about the context
Before you sneak in your German future tense to avoid misunderstandings, consider adding a time like morgen (= tomorrow), nächste Woche (= next week), in drei Stunden (= in 3 hours) or simply dann (= then).
Only if your sentence could still be misunderstood, utilise the future tense.
So, please remember this:
- Use the present tense to express things that will happen in the future:
Ich gehe schwimmen (Lit.: I go swimming).
- Add a time or simply dann (= then) to avoid misunderstandings:
Ich gehe morgen schwimmen (Lit.: I go swimming tomorrow).
Ich gehe dann schwimmen. (Lit.: I go then swimming)
- Go for werden + infinitive when making assumptions:
Sie wird wieder viel reden. (= She will be talking a lot.)
- When in doubt, use present tense.
What do you think about the German future tense? Do you find it hard to simplify your sentences when speaking in German? Let me know in the comments.