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Perhaps this question has been asked before, I may have looked for the wrong terms then because I haven't found the answer.

I would like to know more about the usage of the present tense in sentences expressing the future. What is it called? Does it really express future in the same way as the future tense would? Or is there a nuance? Is it a wide spread phenomenon across languages?

I am especially interested at this practice in French, as with the examples below:

Je déménage demain.
Je vais manger avec Nicolas ce soir.

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General and fairly short answer: Indo-European languages generally have two tenses: past and non-past. The non-past (what you call the present) can be used for the future, though depending on the language other means might be preferable when speaking about the future, e.g. English prefers to use an irrealis mood marked by the modal verb "will" (which, I might add, can also be used for the present and past, e.g. "He'll be there by now" and "He would [past tense form of will] go later"). But you can also use the plain non-past tense in some situations, such as where a future seems tangibly close, e.g. "The sale begins tomorrow".

It's also worth noting that while in English tense and aspect are relatively orthogonal (two tenses x three aspects) other Indo-European languages might be more complicated. E.g. Proto-Indo-European had only four tense-aspect combinations: stative (would become the perfect), perfective (aorist), and past and non-past imperfective (imperfect and "present", respectively). In such a case the future would probably use either the perfective or the subjunctive mood, rather than the "present". It's very possible this system (or mutations) exists in some modern Indo-European languages.

  • Is there a term to express this use of the present (or non-past) tense? – Benjamin Sep 22 '12 at 18:37
  • I'm not aware of a conventionalized term for it. If I had to make one that conveyed the necessary meaning I'd call it the realis future. – Justin Olbrantz Sep 22 '12 at 18:46
  • I do really like the general point of view your answer details. – AsTeR Sep 23 '12 at 14:32
  • Hmm. Further investigation of the topic leads me to a question of my own: is the Romance language "future tense" a true tense, or a mood? I see various places refer to it as "indicative future", though it appears to have descended from the PIE subjunctive mood. Latin appears to have a "future imperative" which could suggest it's a tense, though from what I can see that was archaic even in Classical Latin days, and so might not be a true contrast with the "indicative future" and thus not necessarily evidence that it's a tense. – Justin Olbrantz Sep 24 '12 at 4:52
  • @JustinOlbrantz re Romance future, there are in fact some models that includes the future (and conditional) in a separate potential mood because both express either an actions posteriority, or indicate a sort of conjecture/likelihood. This is the normal view in Asturian, and not infrequent in Spanish, and would apply at least equally well to the other Iberian languages (though I can't speak to how common it is in those languages). I also don't know if it works equally well with other non-Iberian ones. – user0721090601 Mar 20 '16 at 17:34
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As far as I know in French we just call it "présent à valeur de futur". La grammaire du français contemporain (Larousse) calls if le "présent traducteur du futur".
It is always used with an adverb depicting time as in both your sentences: demain, ce soir, etc. We only use the present tense with a future value when the action, although situated in the future (be it close or more distant in time), has already been definitely decided upon.

  • So, as suggested in the comment by @JustinOlbrantz, it's a kind of realis future? – Gaston Ümlaut Sep 23 '12 at 8:47
  • @GastonÜmlaut: to be accurate, and not knowing the term realis future it seems to be what Justin Olbrantz would call realis future in his comment. I am not a linguist by trade, I only have a very good knowledge of French as my native language. – Laure Sep 23 '12 at 8:58
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I'm french, I think I can complete other answers.

It's called "présent à valeur de futur", it express future the same way a future would, for some sentences it would sound less "french" to use future.

In your examples :

Je déménage demain.
Je vais manger avec Nicolas ce soir.

Would actually sound weird in future :

Je déménagerai demain.
Je mangerai avec Nicolas ce soir.

For this case the present tense is perfectly suitable. Wikipedia gives you some details about the case where you must use the "future simple" http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futur_simple

I'm not 100 % sure of that, but to my humble opinion when some action is certain and fixed in the future, it's better to use the present, the future expresses rather a project (in the case of an action in the future).

Nous nous marierons dans un an.

Suggests that not date has been defined, the project is here, but the event is still unclear about the when.

Nous nous marions dans un an.

Suggests that I can ask where and when it's plan to occured.

The use of "aller", doesn't let such details be expressed.

Nous allons nous marier dans un an.

Don't hesitate to ask for confirmation, I'm french so the theory of French is not clear for me, but I know what is used or not.

  • The distinction between "nous nous marion dans un an" and "nous allons nous marrier dans un an" is not really clear. Also you say little about other languages in comparison to French, which was also part of my question. Otherwise I like your answer. – Benjamin Sep 24 '12 at 7:09
  • Both are equals. I talked about French, because I know this language, since I'm not a linguist I can't help that much on other languages ;) – AsTeR Sep 24 '12 at 15:23

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