I'm reading "Meaning and the English Verb" by Geoffrey Leech and in the paragraph §113 on page 71 he states the following:


First, the ways of referring to the future dealt with in this chapter illustrate the point made in §5: that the Present Tense, from the semantic point of view as well as syntactically, would be best described as 'non-past'. We have seen that all these future-referring constructions are variations on the Present Tense, with the very minor exception of the future subordinate use of the Past (see §102c) - even including the 'non-past' modal auxiliaries will / shall, to which we turn again in the next chapter. In other words, the Present Tense, in a broad sense, encompasses both present and future domains of time.


However, in English the major formal distinction of Present and Past tenses can be associated with two major TIME ZONES, 'past' and 'non-past', so that future time is subsumed under 'non-past'. This helps to explain why English, which does not have a Future tense as such, uses Present tense to express future time.

I know what he means by "from the semantic point of view", but I do not understand what he means by "syntactically" in this context.

So what does it mean when he says that "The Present tense would be syntactically best described as 'non-past'"?

  • 1
    Your "But it would be better described as:" examples are correct. So it looks like you understand the author's meaning. Do you still have a more specific question? Dec 28, 2017 at 11:53
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    The terms "past" and "non-past" are not viable semantic categories in English (semantically our distinctions in respect to time are much more refined than that!) but simply a way of describing the absence of marked grammatical features—the same verb form can be used to refer to present-actual, present-usual, and future.
    – TimR
    Dec 28, 2017 at 14:27
  • Please don't post the exact same question on ELU.
    – Davo
    Dec 29, 2017 at 12:54

1 Answer 1


"Syntax" (in general) refers to how a language is structured. "Semantics" (in general) refers to what the words actually mean. According to the author, since English has no formal "future tense" we can both syntactically and semantically divide expressions into either "past" or "non-past".

The author therefore argues that the present tense can be syntactically labelled "non-past tense", because English speakers can use the present tense to describe future events, e.g.:

Tomorrow I have a dentist appointment.

Next week I go to Europe.

Basically the author creates logical groupings, which I assume will be important to the next part of the argument.

  • Thank you very much for the clarification. So by "The Present tense would be syntactically (not semantically) best described as 'non-past'" the author argues using the label "Non-past tense" instead of the label "Present tense" for the present tense (verb form)? Dec 29, 2017 at 11:51
  • @Sinushyperbolikus That's what he says. I'm not familiar enough with linguistics to understand why something like "will have" or "will go" are not a valid future tense syntax, since these can only represent future actions.
    – Andrew
    Dec 29, 2017 at 15:16

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