The English Be Going To Construction and Its Grammaticalization Process

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. Through the Ages - The Grammaticalization Process of the Be Going To Construction
2.1. Old English – The Roots of Go and the Progressive Form
2.2. Middle English – The Next Stage
2.3. Early Modern English – Early Grammaticalization
2.4. Modern English

3. Internal vs. External Factors - Possible Explanations for this Grammaticalization Process

4. Today’s Use of the Andative Future

5. Conclusions

6. References

1. Introduction:

Grammaticalization is one of the very fuzzy areas in linguistic research and the English go -future certainly is no exception in this field. There are a lot of publications dealing with this subject, among them the best-known works of Heine, Traugott, Hopper and Sweetser, some of which are also used as references in this paper. Usually, the issue of the going to future construction only makes up a small part in these publications. However, I will concentrate exclusively on this kind of future of the English language. In my opinion, it is most useful to trace the form back to its origins and follow its development chronologically over the course of time. Furthermore, this seems to be the most appropriate method to deal with the subject, as one can hardly pin down exact points in time at which a certain grammaticalization process can be claimed to have started off, as it is a rather linear development, which will be shown throughout the paper.

A huge problem, as in any field of linguistic research dealing also with Old and Middle English, lies in the lack of data. As there is only a small amount of written evidence to draw from, results and theories based on this data are always a very tentative issue and in no way absolute, a fact one should always keep in mind when dealing with these subjects.

The several stages of the be going to construction[1] have been dealt with exclusively, as in Wecker 1976 or Fleischmann 1982 but also in some works of Danchev and Kytö, who use a synchronic (or ‘rather’ synchronic in the case of Danchev/Kytö) approach to the topic. I will tackle the issue diachronically, concentrating on each of the different stages as a whole.

2. Through the Ages - The Grammaticalization Process of the Be Going To Construction:

The origins of the English be going to construction can be traced back as far as Old English (henceforth OE) times. Hence, when trying to track down its development one has to start off in the Anglo-Saxon Age, from which the first written sources of the modern verb to go date, and follow its development through the Middle English (henceforth ME), Early Modern English (henceforth EModE) and Modern English (henceforth ModE) times in which the phrase is shaped step by step to its present form.

Apparently, go is the heart of the be going to construction and the component that extended its meaning from a purely lexical one, which refers to movement in space, to an (additional) grammatical meaning, namely movement in time (see later sections). Consequently, it is also the component responsible for the development of the construction as a whole.

In the languages of the world there are actually two different constructions centring on a verb of motion to refer to future time. One is utilizing a form of go while the other is based on a form of come. The latter can be found in the French venire de, for example.[2] As the English only knows a future based on go, therefore called an andative future, I will mainly skip the future with a form of come, also called venetive future. But both of them share the important feature that they are “unmarked for manner of movement; that is, in comparing the verb go with plod, stroll, walk, run, stalk, wander, etc. which all carry a sense of movement, only go contains no restrictions on the type of movement which is involved”[3]. That is an important factor one should keep in mind as it is what made the development of the andative future possible, or perhaps rather easy or likely, in the first place.

2.1. Old English – The Roots of Go and the Progressive Form:

Quite naturally, when inquiring issues in OE one can experience that there is as much shadow as there is light when it comes down to finding a universal and exclusive solution to a linguistic problem due to the very limit of the data available to us. And of course, the same holds true for the modern go and also for the English progressive form. Hence, there are different theories for the development for both of them. Maybe, all of them are true to a certain degree but they could well be proven wrong in future enquiries.

The modern go originates in two OE words, namely gān and gangan, both meaning ‘to go’ or ‘to walk’. There are different theories regarding these two verbs. One is that gangan is just a lengthened form of gān or, vice versa, that gān is a shortened version of gangan. The fact that they both have the vowel ēō in their preterite form support this possibility.[4] Furthermore, if one regards this theory to be valid, it would also explain why today there’s only one verb referring to neutral motion, the modern go. As languages usually give up unnecessary forms in their development to be more economical it is likely that gān and gangan could have been used alternately in OE and that one of them, probably the longer form, vanished and left only the shorter gān, which then may have developed into go. Yet, this is just a theory for which there is no scientific proof, yet!

The second possibility is that the two OE verbs are not related at all and that their similarities are pure coincidence. The Middle English Dictionary (MED) supports this theory as it proposes two separate etymologies for the two verbs. Gān is said to be derived Proto-Germanic *gæ- or *gai-, simply meaning ‘to go’, whereas gangan is claimed to be based on the Proto-Germanic gaŋgan, meaning ‘to stride’.[5]

Just like the modern go, the progressive, or what today is also called the ing -form, has its roots in OE. However, it is impossible to pin down one clear predecessor for the form, because in OE one can find two different progressive constructions which are used in different contexts.

The first consists of a form of to be + verb stem + the suffix –ende, as in the following example:

OE: hie wæron blissiende

ModE: they were rejoicing

This construction is rather used in an adjectival context.[6] Logically, blissiende in this case would be the component to specify the ‘being’. This is of course not to be called a ‘real’ adjective but it certainly goes more into that direction than it would be a marker for an ongoing action.

The second OE progressive construction is not at all adjectival. It consists “of an auxiliary verb, the preposition on, a verbal noun identified by its derivative suffix - ung, and the object either in the genitive case, and/or preceded by the preposition of[7]. The use of the on is why this is called the locative construction. Perez gives the following OE example for this form:

OE: hie wæron on huntung on hwales

ModE: they were hunting wales

Based on this evidence to be found in the data the theories are that either the modern progressive is a kind of continuation of the locative construction or that, over the course of time, - ing replaced -ende as the suffix marking the progressive form. Scholars even speak of a further possibility, which is that the modern progressive construction is calqued from the Celtic language.[8] Again, it may be that all of the theories have their certain share of truth.

According to Perez, there are two examples to be found in OE literature which combine the go, the progressive form and, very importantly, to in a sentence, both of which to be found in ‘Gregory’s Dialogues’:

(1) OE: ðu oferfærest ðone sæ 7 bist gangende to Romesbyrig[9]
ModE: You’ll be crossing the sea and going to Rome
(2) OE: ða sume dæge wæs he to ðam baðe gangende[10]

ModE: Then one day as he was going to the bath

Both of which obviously do not display an intention and a movement in time, but the progressive already marks an ongoing action and a movement in space. Hence, as their is no evidence whatsoever to be found in the data, one has to conclude that in OE “there is no equivalent [!] of the auxiliary be going to construction with a sense of intention/prediction [!]. Where it does exist as a progressive, it indicates an ongoing action [...] and the preposition to is not especially common”[11].


[1] This type of future construction is also referred to as ‘andative future’ or ‘ go -future’.

[2] cf. Perez, A. 1990. ‘Time in Motion. Grammaticalization of the Be Going To Construction in English’. In: La Trobe University Working Papers in Linguistics 3: (1990), p. 51.

[3] Perez 1990, p. 52.

[4] cf. Perez 1990, p. 52 f.

[5] cf. MED, Vol 7: 235, cited in Perez 1990, p. 53.

[6] cf. Perez 1990, p. 54.

[7] Perez 1990, p. 54.

[8] cf. Perez 1990, p. 54.

[9] Gregory’s Dialogues, C p132, line 30, cited in Perez 1990, p. 55.

[10] Gregory’s Dialogues, C p343, line 4, cited in Perez 1990, p. 55.

[11] Perez 1990, p. 55.


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University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine" – Anglistisches Institut III - Abteilung für Anglistische Sprachwissenschaft
English Going Construction Grammaticalization Process Hauptseminar Contact Linguistics




Title: The English Be Going To Construction and Its Grammaticalization Process