“Call me if you will change your mind”

This is a sentence I overheard in the shop this morning, spoken with what vaguely seemed like an Eastern-European accent. It sounds weird because it is ungrammatical in English. To make it good, you’d have to change the future tense “when you will change” to the present tense “when you change”. It reminded me of how often non-native speakers get their tenses wrong in English.

The reason why this happens so often is that in many European languages, you actually do use the future tense in such sentences. See for example Czech:

Zavolej mi, jestli si to rozmyslíš.
Call me if you “will” change your mind.

The (reflexive) verb “rozmyslet si” (to change one’s mind) is here in the future tense. English, on other hand, always uses the present tense in such situations. Here are a couple more examples.

If you see the doctor, tell him I was looking for him.
If I need transport, will you be on stand-by?
We’ll only operate if it becomes absolutely necessary.
If she doesn’t like the gift, you’ll be in trouble.

Drop by when you’re in town!
I don’t know what I’ll do when the money runs out.
You’ll be sorry when I’m rich and famous.
You’re all invited to stay when I have my own house one day.

Habits from your first language are sometimes hard to get rid of and that’s why you so often hear “foreigners” say things like “if you will see the doctor” and “when you’ll be in town”.

For somebody coming from a language like Czech, it is strange that one should use the present tense here. Learners often object that it is “illogical” because the expression after the “if” or “when” clearly refers to future time: “if, in the future, you change your mind, call me”. Therefore one should “logically” use the future tense.

Well, “logically”, maybe. But languages aren’t necessarily logical – and what does it mean for a language to be logical, anyway? Time and tense are not the same thing. Time is a phenomenon of semantics (the “what you mean”) while tense is a phenomenon of syntax (the “how you glue words together”) and they are not required to correspond to each other exactly. In fact, it is common in many languages to use the “wrong” tense sometimes, such as when one refers to the future with the present tense: “I am not available tomorrow” and so on. This particular way of using the present tense to talk about the future exists in all languages I know of and nobody even notices how “illogical” it is.

So English has evolved in such a way that it requires you to use the present tense in these “if” and “when” sentences. That sounds like a bad idea (why say “now” when you mean “later”?) but in reality it’s not a big deal: you almost always have enough context to figure out that a reference is being made to the future and not the present. Sometimes, though, the intended time reference is not so clear. Consider for example that somebody tells you “if you want to see a doctor, tell me”. What are they actually saying? Is it “if you want to see a doctor now” or is it “if you want to see a doctor at any stage in the future”? Fortunately, such ambiguities are mostly harmless and so English continues to be the way it is. (If it were a problem, I’m sure English would have evolved some device to deal with it.) In Czech, though, you’d need the present tense for the former interpretation and the future tense for the latter interpretation.

jestli chceš k doktorovi
if you want to see a doctor

jestli budeš chtít k doktorovi
if you “will” want to see a doctor

I think that having read this, everybody will agree that English is being unnecessarily complicated on this score. Surely it would be “simpler” to always use the future tense when referring to future time. People often praise English for having a relatively “simple” grammar, compared to other languages, because of its almost complete absence of things like gender, inflection and case. But the same people fail to notice that English too has its fair share of dark allies of spurious complexity. This is one of them.

I think it’s reasonable to presume that the concept of tense as we know it from syntax originally developed in close correspondence to the concept of time as we know it from semantics. Naturally enough, the past, present and future tenses exist because we have a need to refer to past, present and future events and states. That’s in fact why we call them past, present and future, isn’t it? In some languages, the word for tense is even the same as one of the words for time (Czech “čas”, Irish “aimsir”, French “temps”). But the concept of “tense” has apparently become slightly dissociated from the concept of “time” over time (no pun intended!) and has acquired a life of its own. The process of “dissociation of variables” is a common affair in the history of any language. Another famous variable that has become dissociated from its original semantic motivation is gender: I know why the German, French and Irish words for woman are feminine (“die Frau”, “la femme”, “an bhean”), but what is it about apples that makes it necessary for the French word to be feminine also (“la pomme”), and why then must it be masculine in German (“der Apfel”)? And don’t get me started on why the Irish word for “girl” is masculine (“an cailín”). It’s all because gender has long ago ceased to be purely an indicator of sex and has acquired additional roles in the syntax of the language that have nothing to do with sex whatsoever.

Anyway, back to “if you will change”. It turns out that “if” and “when” sentences are an interesting case for cross-linguistic comparison. Different languages are configured differently as to how they realize future time in the subclause after the “if” and “when”. Languages like Czech always use the future tense, English always uses the present tense and many other languages sit somewhere in between. Irish, for example, uses the “logical” future tense in “when” sentences but the “illogical” present tense in “if” sentences (actually, this is only true in positive sentences and the tense is actually the present habitual, but that’s probably more detail than anybody needs).

fheiceann tú an dochtúir, abair leis go raibh mé á lorg.
If you see the doctor, tell him I was looking for him.

Buail isteach chugam nuair a bheidh tú sa chathair!
Drop by when you “will” be in town!

Or that at least is how the grammar books would have it. Because practically all Irish speakers are bilingual in English and because English is more often than not their primary language, a lot of cross-over happens and you often come across sentences which are strictly speaking “wrong” (in the sense that a good subeditor would weed them out) but are nonetheless common.

*Buail isteach chugam nuair atá tú sa chathair!
Drop by when you are in town!

So here again we have a situation when a speaker is unknowingly dragging structures from his first language into his second language. This type of cross-over is bound to happen, or at least bound to want to happen, in the mind of any bilingual person – regardless of whether it comes out in an Eastern-European accent or an Irish one.


2 thoughts on ““Call me if you will change your mind”

  1. There’s a mistake in the other direction that I’ve heard a native Irish speaker make in English – “Wait now until we’ll see”. (In Irish this speaker doesn’t distinguish between “fan go bhfeicfimid” and “fan go bhfeicimid” )

  2. That’s interesting. You don’t see spontaneous “Irishisms” like this in English often (except old-established ones, of course, but those don’t count). It’s usually from English to Irish that cross-over happens, not in the opposite direction.

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