The Grammarphobia Blog

When the future is present

Q: I’ve noticed that people who write Dear Abby often say something like “I am being married in the fall” where I would say “I am getting married in the fall.” Is “being married” correct here?

A: The short answer is yes, but expressing the future in English can get (or be) as complicated as trying to predict it.

In fact, some linguists maintain that English doesn’t have a future tense per se. They argue that the word “will” in “We will marry in the fall” is an auxiliary of mood, rather than tense. But let’s not get sidetracked.

Whether English technically has a future tense or not, it certainly has a lot of ways to express the future.

One of them is what grammarians call the futurate, a usage in which the future is referred to without using a traditional future construction. The usual way to do this is with a multi-word form of the present tense.

The two sentences you ask about (“I am being married in the fall” and “I am getting married in the fall”) are examples of the present progressive futurate.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the futurate “is subject to severe pragmatic constraints” and “must involve something that can be assumed to be known already in the present.”

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, authors of the Cambridge Grammar, say the most common uses of the futurate “involve cyclic events in nature, scheduled events, and conditionals.” Cambridge offers these examples:

Cyclic events of nature. “It’s going to rain soon.”

Scheduled events. “Australia meets Sweden in the Davis Cup final in December.”

Conditionals. “What happens if there is a power failure?”

As for your question, both “I am getting married in the fall” and “I am being married in the fall” are perfectly legitimate sentences.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “get” indicates that “getting” in a sentence like the first one means causing a “specified action to be performed upon (a person or thing).”

And the dictionary’s entry for “be” indicates that “being” in a sentence like the second is an “auxiliary, forming the progressive passive.”

The OED has examples of this use of “being” dating back to the 1700s. Here’s one from a 1795 letter by the English poet Robert Southey: “A fellow … whose grinder is being torn out by the roots.” (A grinder is a molar.)

Although the OED lists the “being” usage as standard English, it notes that some 19th-century commentators criticized it.

For example, David Booth, author of An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language (1830), is quoted as saying the usage “pained the eye and stunned the ear.”

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