Grammar Lesson of the Day: The Future Participle
“Hail, Caesar!” cried the gladiators in the arena. “We who are about to die salute you!”
In our last lesson we defined the term participle: it’s a form of a verb used as an adjective, retaining many of the properties of verbs. One of those properties is tense, referring to the time of an action. That’s the simple way of putting it, for now. What’s important about the tense of a participle is that the time designated is relative. If it happened before the time indicated in the clause where the participle appears, then we need a past participle:
Tomorrow I’ll examine the windows broken in the storm. (The breaking happens before the examining. We are not certain whether it happens before the speaker utters this sentence; he could be anticipating a bad nor’easter.)
If it is happening at the same time, we need a present participle:
I had never seen Captain Kirk looking so confused as he did when the Klingon showed him a full house.
All this happened in the past, but we use a present participle because Kirk’s confusion happened just as Kang flipped those cards over. “Now let us try a warrior’s game,” said Kang.
If it will happen after the time designated, we need a future participle. That is, if we have one! English doesn’t. So in English we have to use cumbersome phrases to bring across the idea. “Hail, Caesar! We who in the next two hours or so will be spilling our blood on these sands salute you!” Our two most common stand-ins are going to and about to. It’s easy to see how they developed.
“Byrhtnoth! Why are you skulking about? What are you about? Are you skulking about, to steal my pigs? Are you about to steal my pigs?
But the Romans didn’t have to skulk about to steal pigs. They just flashed the future active participle, bright as a sword:
Ave, Caesar! Morituri te salutamus!
One word, morituri, modifies the we contained in the verb salutamus: we salute. It’s a future participle of the verb mori, to die. The gladiators aren’t dead yet. They aren’t dying now. They’re going to die. We who-are-about-to-die salute you!