Why Germans Barely Use The Future Tense (And What We Use Instead)

 

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:

Ich werde morgen, vielleicht aber auch erst nächste Woche, aber nur wenn mein Freund auch Zeit hat, und ich natürlich auch frei habe und meine anderen Freunde auch, nach Sydney fahren.

(= 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

the-awfull-german-language-melbourne

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:

When in doubt, use present tense.

 

Remember

  • 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.

9 replies on “Why Germans Barely Use The Future Tense (And What We Use Instead)

  • Cookie

    Awesome post. This is something that I’ve been really confused about since we use the future tense so often in English. It’s very difficult for an English speaker to transition into using the present tense for things in the future. Sometime I even think, “How can they understand what I’m trying to say unless I use the future tense (werden + verb),” since in English most of the time using the present tense doesn’t sound quite right when trying to express something happening in the future. This post clears it up.

    Reply
    • Anja Mueller

      Glad you like the post. Isn’t it weird that simplifying your sentences is such a task. But rest assured, Germans will understand you, we just need a little tomorrow or next week or simply dann and everything will be ok. 🙂 Thank you so much for your thoughts.

      Reply
  • Annett

    THANK YOU! Finally the truth is being told! Love your post, because it’s to the point and doesn’t stuff German learners with unnecessary grammar. Keep the goodies coming! 🙂

    Reply
  • Héctor

    Nett! Also die Deutsche mögen nicht das Futur, weil sie auf das Futur warten müssen, um die Aktion zu wissen. Ich finde es gut, dass die Deutsche normalerweise die Zukunft vergessen und die Gegenwart betonen. (Korrekturen sind willkommen ;-))

    Reply
  • Franz

    As an Italian, I find it slightly easier than English people how Germans work out the future, because we use the present to talk about the future too.
    However, note that in English too sometimes the present instead of will+infinitive is used. E.g.:

    the train leaves at 8 o’ clock
    tomorrow I’m going home

    In German and Italian these sentences would sound as:

    il treno parte alle 8 — Der Zug fährt um 8 Uhr ab (lit. “the train leaves at 8 o’ clock”)
    domani vado a casa — Morgen fahre ich nach Hause (lit “tomorrow I go home”)

    The real difference appears when e.g. someone replies “I’ll tell you briefly”.
    Both Italian and German would never use the future and rather use the present: in both cases using the future would not be incorrect; you may however feel the same taste when comparing

    The subject, about which I will talk, is very interesting

    to

    The subject I will talk about is very interesting

    As you may see, both sentences are grammatically correct, but the first one would not just sound right.

    Reply

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