Grammaticalization at an early stage: Future 'be going to' in conservative British dialects

Sali Tagliamonte, Mercedes Durham, Jennifer Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


The English go future, a quintessential example of grammaticalization, has been layered with will since at least since 1490. To date, most synchronic evidence for this development comes from dialects where be going to represents a sizable proportion of the future temporal reference system. However, in the United Kingdom in the late 20th century there were still dialects where be going to was only beginning to make inroads, representing a mere 10-15% of future contexts and thus offer an unprecedented view of the early stages of grammatical change.

Logistic regression analysis of nearly 5000 variable contexts reveals that be going to is increasing across generations, but at different rates, depending on location and orientation to mainstream norms. Major patterns of use mirror previous findings: be going to is favoured for subordinate clauses. However, other widely-reported constraints conditioning be going to are radically different across age groups exposing contrasts between incipient vs. later stages of grammaticalization. In the most conservative dialects be going to is strongly correlated with negatives and questions, but especially with 1st person singular suggesting that these contexts may have been the ‘trigger’ environments for redistribution of meaning of the incoming grammatical form (Hopper & Traugott, 1993:85). The fact that strong effects of negatives and questions endure in contemporary urban varieties (Torres-Cacoullos & Walker, 2009), suggests that grammaticalization does not require a particular threshold in frequency for the operation of relevant constraints. In contrast, other reported constraints, such as resistance of be going to in 1st person singular generally and extension to inanimates and far future readings emerge across generations, suggesting they are later developments.

Taken together, these findings demonstrate how synchronic dialects expose incremental steps in the grammaticalization process. Comparative sociolinguistic analysis offers insights into which patterns derive from systemic processes; which can be attributed to discourse routines and collocations; and how these two (or more) factors converge in shaping the evolution of grammar.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-108
Number of pages34
JournalEnglish Language and Linguistics
Issue number1
Early online date6 Feb 2014
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014

Bibliographical note

The authors gratefully acknowledge the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom (Tagliamonte, Smith), the Arts and Humanities Research Board of the United Kingdom (Tagliamonte) and the Carnegie Trust for Universities in Scotland (Durham) for their generous support in conducting this research and writing up the paper. We also thank our ELL reviewers and editors who contributed greatly to this final product, although none but ourselves are responsible for its present content.


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