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I saw this sentence in a book:

Don't phone Ann now. She'll be busy. (= she'll be busy now)

-- English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy.

I don't understand why the sentence uses future tense for “She'll be busy.”

I'm wondering if I can write “Don't phone Ann now. She is busy.” instead or not.

Plus, “she'll be busy” means she may be busy or not.

  • I don't have a full answer for you, but I think it's a matter of implying a hypothetical future. I'd read it as “If you call her, she will be busy.” It's also a bit of a hedge, as the speaker does not mean to convey that he or she has perfect knowledge of Ann's availability (which would not be possible in this situation). – Tyler James Young Sep 10 '13 at 18:13
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    If, however, the speaker were standing next to Ann, and Ann was midwifing the delivery of a rhino calf, the speaker might say (to anyone elsewhere) “Do not call Ann. She is busy.” because at that point the speaker is willing to claim full knowledge that Ann is not available for calls. – Tyler James Young Sep 10 '13 at 18:21
  • English doesn't have a future tense. The modal auxiliary will can express future time, but it doesn't do so directly, so other interpretations are often possible (or required). Again, I'll link to What's will? on Language Log, as it'll do a better job of explaining than I would. – snailplane Sep 10 '13 at 23:52
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In OP's context, the future tense verb form doesn't necessarily imply any direct reference to a future time. For example, there are several hundred written instances in Google Books of...

[He] will be asleep now

...where obviously the word now implies present, not future time. But it's important to note that native speakers often use He would be asleep now in exactly the same context, with exactly the same meaning.

In my example, you could interpret will as implying something along the lines of it will become apparent [in the near future], and would as implying the irrealis/subjunctive if it were to be definitively established.

But in practice I don't believe native speakers think that way. It's just that using the "future" tense places a bit more "distance" between the speaker/time of speaking and the referent. For example, Stanley's famous greeting could have been (but wasn't, I believe)...

"You will be Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

Depending on the exact context, the precise nuance imparted by introducing You will be in such a construction may vary. For example, it could convey respect (you are different/more important than others in the presently-assembled company), or disrespect (you are different/less important than them).


Having said all that, the use of future tense in OP's exact context usually implies you believe or expect your statement will be verifiable. If Ann had only just told you she'd be busy for at least the next hour, you'd use present tense (because you know she is busy).

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    And then there's "You will be Dr.Livingstone, at the Halloween party, I presume?" – Howard Pautz Sep 10 '13 at 22:07
  • Come to think of it, sir, can I use "would be verbing" for inference? e.g. She would be swimming = She will be swimming? @FumbleFingers – Kinzle B Jan 11 '15 at 11:38
  • @Kinzle: You can indeed, but should (often contracted to 'd) won't necessarily work equally well in all contexts. It's a bit more "formal, deferential, hesitant" than will, which is sometimes appropriate. Other times it can add a "slightly sarcastic" tone (effectively "inverting" the standard formal implications). Incidentally, native Anglophones would not normally address anyone as sir except in very formal contexts (or when talking to a customer in a "service" role such as restaurant waiter, shop sales assistant, etc.). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jan 11 '15 at 19:31
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In imaginative sentences, if we are certain about something then we use 'will' else 'would.'

In the given context, the speaker is not in the direct vicinity of Ann. So, he is not saying 'Ann is busy,' instead he is imaging that 'Ann will be busy.' The speaker is certain about it. After an hour or so, the conversation would continue like this- 'Can I phone Ann now?' 'I guess. She would be free now.'

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