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In future or in the future: What’s the difference?

Sheila Ethier
(Language Update, Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 2013)

Recently, a fellow language professional questioned my use of the phrase in future. She felt that in the future was necessary for formal English and that the absence of the definite article was telegraphic style.

I was surprised, since the phrase sounded quite natural to me without the, so I decided to do some investigating. Sure enough, my ear had not deceived me: both the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2004) and the Collins Canadian Dictionary (2010) list the phrase in future. The Canadian Oxford also lists for the future as an equivalent.

However, it seems that these two adverb phrases are not merely synonyms for in the future. In future and for the future both mean "from now on, from this point forward." In other words, the desired change is to come into effect now and continue on:

  • For the sake of my nerves, dear, I would prefer to do the driving in future.
  • For the future, we will rely on teleconferencing to reduce our travel expenses.

The phrase in the future, on the other hand, is used simply to mean "at some indefinite future time." The idea that the action begins from this point on is absent:

  • In the future, earthlings may colonize Mars.

Interestingly, this distinction between in future and in the future does not seem to exist in American English, where the phrase in future is rarely used. A quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English turned up under 200 instances of the adverb phrase in future in material published between 1990 and 2012, as opposed to over 12,000 uses of in the future.

In Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009), Bryan Garner explains why a phrase common enough to be listed in two top Canadian dictionaries is so rare in American speech: apparently, in future "is British English, perhaps through direct translation of the Latin phrase in futuro or perhaps because of the British English pattern of usage without the definite article <she’s in hospital>." In contrast, Garner notes, "American English uses the definite article."