What is the difference between the future and present tense in the following sentences? Which tense is more preferred?

Quiet or you die!

Quiet or you'll die!


Hold still or I kill you!

Hold still or I'll kill you!


As has often been pointed out on ELL, English only really has two tenses (past, and "not-past"), so there's really no "grammatical rule" in play here. It's more a matter of idiomatic preferences.

One alternative phrasing I didn't give in the above link is "If you cancel, I go instead". Without more context, that version might look slightly odd, but in some cases present tense is actually preferred for the "consequential/subsequent action". Consider, for example,...

When you die you go to heaven (2370 hits in Google Books)
When you die you will go to heaven (1690 hits)

It's not easy to identify general principles about when native speakers tend not to use the modal will to indicate "future tense" - but it's certainly true that overall we do use it more often that not.

I think will is less likely to be used in contexts where the speaker wants to emphasise the equivalence of two actions (since the first one is invariably already expressed in present tense). Thus, for example,...

Blink and you lose (63 hits)
Blink and you will lose (0 hits)

It's worth noting that will also suggests volition and/or inevitability. To some extent, my examples can be seen as "statements". But OP's examples are more likely to be uttered as "threats", in which context will is much more likely to be included. In the final analysis though, it's normally just a stylistic choice.

  • I still don't get that "English has only two tenses" thing. Also in Italian I could use the Simple Present for something that I will do in the future, but Italian is not said to have just past and not-past tenses. For example, it is perfectly idiomatic to say Domani vado a Roma ("Tomorrow I go to Rome."), but nobody says that Italian doesn't have a future tense. In the same way, the translation of "When you die you go to heaven." is Quando muori vai in paradiso. (without future tense). – apaderno Jul 11 '13 at 16:24
  • @kiamlaluno: I'm not great at the terminology, but I think I walk and I am walking are just "moods", not different "tenses" as such. And either of them can be preceded by, for example, Tomorrow, because they can just as easily apply to the future as to the present. You can use "helper" auxiliary verbs like will and shall to convey "future", but they often have other connotations, and there's no way to "inflect" a variant of the primary verb to convey future. – FumbleFingers Jul 11 '13 at 16:35
  • Moods are, for example, the indicative and the imperative moods. Simple Present and Present Continuous are tenses. In Italian, the future tense can be used to speak of something I am willing to do (e.g. Andrò da mio cugino., which means "I will to go my cousin's."), in the same way it happens in English. I don't see any difference between Italian and English, in that expect, but nobody says Italian doesn't have a future tense only because the future tense is used also for other purposes, and Simple Present is used to refer to future events. – apaderno Jul 11 '13 at 18:30
  • @kiamlaluno: I'm probably not the best person to convince you, if you disagree with the idea that English only has past and non-past tenses. I'm sure John Lawler and StoneyB are better equipped than me to make the case. – FumbleFingers Jul 11 '13 at 20:44
  • @CoolHandLouis: I think the big difference arises because WHEN [subject1+verb1], [subject2+verb2] very explicitly equates the two actions, which encourages us to use the same tense. In an imperative like [You] do this OR I do that there's more of a sense that "you doing this" is a current (or very near future) action, whereas "me doing that" is in the more distant future (or never, if the threat works). Thus "...or I will do that" is far more natural, which to me makes most/all present-tense versions at least slightly "odd". – FumbleFingers Jun 6 '14 at 11:22

Since the killing would take place in the future, I think it's best to include the will.

Also, if I was interested in strict and proper grammar, I'd probably change the first one to:

Be quiet or you'll die!

That said, kidnappers, carjackers, bank robbers, and hostage takers who make these remarks are normally rather jacked up on adrenaline when they make such threats, and therefore don't tend to worry too much about correct verb tense, so you might find either of your alternatives in a book or movie script.

  • So, is present tense in this case just a result of careless speech? – stillenat Jul 10 '13 at 10:21
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    I don't know if I'd go that far. They are both understandable. I think the first one ("..or you die!") sounds a little more natural and a little less "careless" than the second ("or I kill you!"), but I'm having trouble figuring out why that's the case. I'll be interested to read what others say. – J.R. Jul 10 '13 at 10:28
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    @stillenat I guess that in some cases using less words is perfectly normal; for example, a soldier on the battle field would probably say "You OK?" to another soldier, instead of "Are you OK?" – apaderno Jul 10 '13 at 12:26
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    @J.R. The first sounds more natural to me too. As a long shot I would suggest that this is so because it approximates to if-sentences that use the present tense in both clauses when talking about natural laws or inevitable consequences: If you put wood on water, it floats. If iron is exposed to air and water, it rusts. So, a natural consequence of you talking is you dying. In the second case, it's more like a threat than a natural consequence, so the future tense is used. – Shoe Jul 10 '13 at 13:17
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    To the extent that this is a serious conversation: I was thinking that movies often give villains strange idiosyncrasies to make them more entertaining, like wearing colorful costumes or leaving some distinctive "calling card" at every crime scene or having some peculiar style of speech. Most real-life criminals are far less entertaining than the Joker or Lex Luthor et al. – Jay Jul 12 '13 at 13:58

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