Talking about the future

Expressing the future time in English is particularly fraught with problems not only because there are so many different forms to choose from, but also because the distinction between them is not always clear.

Will

Form

There should be no problem in making this particular form of the future tense since will does not change with the subject and the main verb is the form that you would find in a dictionary and so does not change either.

will

I

you

he

she

it

we

they

will ('ll)

will not (won't)

look

Meanings

This is the form that most people immediately associate with the future tense, but it is in fact restricted in its use. It has two main functions.

  • the first is to talk about unplanned or spontaneous future events;
  • the second is for predictions that are not based on current evidence.

Some examples should help to clarify the different meanings:

(The telephone rings) I'll get it.

I'll make us a cup of coffee.

In these two cases the speaker is deciding what to do on the spur of the moment without prior consideration. You may have noticed that they act as offers. This is also true of promises or threats like:

  • I'll give you the money back next week.
  • I'll kill you!
  • For predictions, we may hear or read sentences like:
  • I think it'll rain tomorrow.
  • There's no way that we will lose the game.
  • You will meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger.

Going to

Form

This is an unusual compound form since it is made up of the Present Continuous tense of the verb go with to + the main verb, so it is easy to confuse this with a normal Present Continuous.

am/is/are going to

I

am ('m) going to

am not ('m not) going to

look

you

we

they

are ('re) going to

are not (aren't) going to

he

she

it

is ('s) going to

is not (isn't) going to

Meanings

There are two main functions of this tense; the first is to refer to premeditated intentions. Examples of this are:

  • I'm going to take a few days off.
  • We're going to visit my parents at the weekend.

The meaning that the speakers want to get across here is that I/we hope that these events will take place, but they are always subject to change if needs be or if some unforeseen obstacle arises. There is a sense of an arrangement, but it has a rather indefinite feel to it.

The second use of this form is for talking about predictions based on present or past evidence. You may remember we said that will is used for referring to predictions that are not reliant on current evidence - going to, on the other hand, is used for those predictions where we can rely on present evidence or past experience. For example:

  • Look at those clouds - it's going to rain.
  • Have you heard that Jenny's going to have a baby?
  • Getting up at 4:00 in the morning is going to be a problem.

In the first sentence there is clear, visible evidence that my prediction is likely to come true. It would be, at best, unusual to use any other of the future forms in this situation and, at worst, incorrect. The prediction in the second example is based on information that I have heard directly from Jenny herself or from someone who already had the information. The final sense seems to be based on my past experience of getting up early in the morning.

Present Continuous

Form

We have already met the Present Continuous when talking about present, temporary events and actions, so, it is perhaps rather surprising to find that it can also be used to refer to events that have not even started yet. In fact, this is a very important use of this tense.

Meanings

While the going to future form is often used to discuss intentions (possibly prearranged), the Present Continuous is used more for referring to solid arrangements and plans. For example, we are more likely to prefer this form when we have made a booking at a restaurant or theatre or have bought tickets for a train/plane journey. This tense is often accompanied by a time adverbial such as next month, in July etc.

  • Next holiday we're staying in a five-star hotel. (the reservation has been made)
  • They're all taking the day off on the 7th.
  • I'm spending Christmas in the Bahamas.

Present Simple

Form

Just as the use of the Present Continuous to refer to future time may have been surprising, the Present Simple may, at first sight at least, seem the most unlikely candidate for talking about future events. The form is as before:

Meanings

The foremost use of this tense form to indicate future time is almost certainly after time conjunctions such as after, before, when, if, until, as soon as and so on. A few examples should demonstrate this:

  • She'll get in touch as soon as she has the information.
  • If I see Michael, I'll give him the message.
  • When you finish the report, put it on my desk.

Perhaps not quite so obvious is its use in referring to programmes, timetables, itineraries and public events that we have no direct control over.

  • I'm spending Christmas in the Bahamas. The plane leaves on the 20th.
  • When does the film start?
  • Often precise times are given.

Future Continuous

Form

There are two more commonly used tenses with more complex forms that are used to refer to the future, the first consisting of will + be + the present participle and the second consisting of be going to + be + the present participle. The full forms are given in the following tables:

Future Continuous (Progressive) with will

I

you

he

she

it

we

they

will ('ll) be

will not (won't) be

looking

Future Continuous (Progressive) with be going to

I

am ('m) going to be

am not ('m not) going to be

looking

you

we

they

are ('re) going to be

are not (aren't) going to be

he

she

it

is ('s) going to be

is not (isn't) going to be

Meanings

There are two basic functions for these two forms and the difference in meaning between them is, for our purposes, negligible. Firstly, we use the Future Continuous to talk about predicted or planned events that start at some unspecified time in the future and are still occurring at a given time in the future. In this sense it is often used with time adverbials beginning this time next... or a precisely specified time. Since this sounds rather complicated it may be better to illustrate this with a diagram and a couple of examples.

  • This time next week I'll be lying on a beach in Hawaii.

Another example of this is:

  • We'll be watching the TV at 9:00. (It is not known when we will start, but at 9:00 we will be in front of the TV and we will probably continue to watch after 9:00.)

In their second sense, we can avoid any hint of intention, planning, prediction, willingness or unwillingness by using these two tenses. The impression is that this is how the future will unfold in spite of everything else, so it can be used to show that we are not being put out or putting others out or to check on someone's plans before asking a potentially embarrassing favour. For instance:

  • Would you like a lift? - I'm going to be heading in that direction anyway.
  • Will you be dropping by later? (e.g. As a prelude to asking the listener to bring something from the supermarket on the way.)

Future Perfect Simple

Form

The following two tenses are not used as often as the others that we have looked at, but they still need to be explained as they are likely to arise in the teaching classroom if only at the more advanced levels. They are both complex verb forms; the Future Perfect Simple is made with will + have + the past participle.

Future Perfect Simple

I

you

he

she

it

we

they

will ('ll ) have ('ll've)

won't have

won't've

looked

Meaning

We use this tense to look at events or actions from a point in the future after we expect the event or action to have already finished. It is often accompanied by a time phrase beginning with either by or before. Again, a diagram is perhaps the best way to demonstrate this tense.

  • I will have passed my driving test by the end of the year.

Future Perfect Continuous

Form

The Future Perfect Continuous is formed with will + have + been + the present participle.

Future Perfect Continuous

I

you

he

she

it

we

they

will have been

'll have been

'll've been

will not have been

will not've been

won't have been

won't've been

looking

Meaning

Rather like the Future Perfect Simple, this tense is used to view future events that have already happened from a more distant point in the future The main difference between the two being that by using the Future Perfect Continuous, we are emphasising the duration of the event. One example of this tense might be:

  • My family will have been living abroad for 5 years this September.

 

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