2

(1) I phone her tonight.
(2) I’m phoning her tonight.
(The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language)

(1) and (2) are all possible expressions: (1) as a schedule or plan, (2) could be used in the same objects of (1), "but this is not limited to them: it could be that I have simply formed the intention to phone her (without consulting her or anyone else about the matter)”.

But for this following expression, ‘I’ll phone you tonight’, the book says “it’s hardly possible if I'd simply said, casually, I’ll phone you tonight.” What reason could be possible for this saying?

“The progressive is restricted to cases where human agency or intention is involved - hence the anomaly of examples like [ib: ‘The sun is setting at five tomorrow’]. The difference between non-progressive and progressive is fairly clear in pairs like [ii: (1) and (2) above]. The non-progressive suggests a schedule or plan: perhaps I regularly phone her on the first Sunday in the month, or perhaps the call is part of some larger plan or arrangement - it’s hardly possible if I’d simply said, casually, I’ll phone you tonight. The progressive [iib: (2) above] could be used in these schedule/plan scenarios, but it is not limited to them: it could be that I have simply formed the intention to phone her (without consulting her or anyone else about the matter) and am waiting till I think she’ll be in.” (CGEL, p.171)

  • It's not terribly clear which book says the phrase is incorrect, or even why it feels that way. Phone is used here as a synonym for call, and none of the uses you have listed is incorrect. (Whether they are common is another matter.) – Jonathan Garber Oct 16 '13 at 14:57
  • Are you saying that you have a book that says "I'll phone you tonight" is improper English?? Apart from the fact that I think most Americans would use "call" instead of "phone" I see nothing wrong with that sentence. Is what you've quoted all they say about it? I don't quite understand what their argument is. – Jim Oct 16 '13 at 14:58
  • @Jim, The words in the qoutes are all as what they say. – Listenever Oct 16 '13 at 15:01
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    Could you let us know what comes immediately before "it's hardly possible &c"? ... That is, what does "it's" refer to? – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 16 '13 at 15:33
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    I don't think (1) is correct, unless it's a small fragment of a sentence ("When I phone her tonight, I will tell her about the party.") On its own, it has to have a future marker in there: "I will phone her tonight." – Martha Oct 16 '13 at 15:41
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CGEL claims that

  1. the non-progressive I phone her tonight “suggests a schedule or plan” and therefore would not be employed (“it’s hardly possible”) if the speaker had only a casual intention of calling: an intention of the sort expressed by I’ll phone you tonight.

  2. The progressive I’m phoning her tonight can, like the non-progressive be employed in the case of a schedule or plan; but unlike the non-progressive it can also be used of a casual intention.

I agree with CGEL, and in fact would go farther; the non-progressive does not merely “suggest a schedule or plan”, it is (in my US experience) only used of a single event when a schedule or plan is the topic.

According to my calendar she sees Bob in New York this afternoon ... I phone her tonight ... depending on what we sort out you and Carol work up the numbers overnight and email us ... then we've all got a conference call at 8:00 in the morning. 8:00 our time.

The reason, I suspect, is that a very strong non-habitual context, shared by both parties to the discourse, is required to overcome the ordinary habitual/generic implicature of the non-progressive present construction.

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