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What time reference is indicated by imperative sentences/Sentences with modal verbs?

Some say it refers to present time, while others say it indicates future time since the action can only happen after the time of speaking.

Examples-

Do this work.

You must do it now.

Will you stop talking?

I will do it now.

What will/would you like to have?

May i come in? etc.

The above query seems innocuous on the face of it but i have found many native experts differing on time reference of above with some calling them as referring to future time whereas dictionaries and some websites describe them to be referring either to present or future time(if future temporal reference is mentioned) .

I am not referring to their tense part which is clear.

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  • They have no inherent time reference. Any time reference comes from context and presupposition.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 2, 2020 at 21:51

1 Answer 1

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Imagine being the speaker saying these things to someone else, and let's look at some of them in turn:

May I come in?

This means you're asking for permission to enter someone's room or office. If the answer is "yes", then presumably you're going to enter that room/office. So you're asking the question in the present, and the corresponding action would occur in the near future. It's not like you're asking to come in tomorrow or in three hours, but there's still a sequence of events: ask (present), wait for an answer, act on the answer (future).

What would you like to have?

Among other things, this is a common way for a waiter at a restaurant to take your order, so it's equivalent to "what would you like to order". After you hear that question, perhaps you'll think about it, or ask the waiter some questions about the menu, or maybe even tell them if you already know what you want. Then you're going to wait until the food is prepared, and once it's ready, your waiter is going to bring it to you.

Again, this is talking about the near future. You don't expect to wait for hours and hours at the restaurant to get what you ordered, but some time will elapse between when you get the question and when your food shows up.

You must do it now.

From your point of view, the "present" is the time when you're telling the other person to do the thing. It's clear that you want that thing to happen in the very near future, but it's still the future.


The thing to remember is that the present - the "now" - is always moving. My present at the beginning of writing this answer is different from the present as I'm writing this sentence. In general, if one event follows another event, they can't both be in the present, because some amount of time needs to pass between the two - even if it's a small amount of time. In your examples, the speaker says something (first event) and then something happens as a result (second event). What's common to all the examples is that the desired outcome is in the near future, as opposed to the indefinite future (e.g. someday).

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  • Thanks RuslanD for your answers which are apt. Isn't it that 'May i come in' and 'what would you like to have ' will also refer to near(immediate)future as it can only happen after the time of speaking /asking. Similar will be the case with imperative sentences. Thanks
    – Sanjay
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 5:40
  • @Sanjay I'm not sure I understand your question, because I think that's exactly what I already said for these two examples. Was my answer confusing in some way?
    – RuslanD
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 5:52
  • Yes, RuselD.just wanted to confirm that i understood clearly about 'May i come in', What would you like to have ' refer to immediate future. Also, you had not mentioned about imperative sentences time reference. Thanks
    – Sanjay
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 7:13
  • Again, I recommend that you imagine you're the speaker saying these sentences. If you tell someone "do this" or "do it (now)", you probably expect that person to do whatever you want them to do sooner rather than later.
    – RuslanD
    Commented May 3, 2020 at 7:26

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