This article follows on from the previous two. They dealt with past and perfect verb forms, this one considers the future tense.
To achieve level 7 or above you need to have a precise understanding of the different ways of expressing future time and/or describing future events. Ability to use the full range of future forms accurately and appropriately is one of the surest ways of distinguishing between beginner and advanced students. Whereas the former tend to overuse ‘will’, the latter should be able to show they can use all of the forms listed below.
Ways of expressing the future
Will/Shall + infinitive
- i) This form is used when you wish to make predictions and prophecies. It can be used to refer to an indefinite or definite time period.
I think it’ll be a good game.
There will be lots of driverless cars on the road in the next twenty years.
- ii) ‘Will/Shall’ + perfect infinitive is used to express ‘past in future’. This involves looking back from a point in the future.
By the end of next week, I’ll have written ten reports.
iii) ‘Will’ is used to express spontaneous decisions, that is decisions made at the time of speaking.
The phone’s ringing. I’ll answer it.
‘Be going to’
This form is used in two slightly different ways.
- i) to express future intention
He is going to change his job sometime this year.
Note that there can be a slight difference between saying ‘I am going to do something’ and ‘I intend to do something’.
The sentence ‘I am going to win tomorrow’ suggests a stronger expectation of success than ‘I intend to win tomorrow’, which is closer in meaning to ‘I aim to win.’
In passive sentences, it is more likely to be the intention of the implied agent rather than the subject, especially when it is inanimate, that is meant.
‘The schedule is going to be rearranged next week.’ (= ‘someone is going to rearrange the schedule next week.’)
While ‘will’, as mentioned above, is used for expressing spontaneous decisions, the use of ‘going to’ indicates that the decision was made before the utterance.
‘We’re going to see a musical when we go to London next week. I booked the seats yesterday.’
- ii) to express future of present cause’
The phrase ‘future of present cause’ simply indicates that the speaker sees a causal connection between some present event or state and a future one.
‘She is going to have a baby.’ (She’s pregnant.)
‘It is going to rain.’ (There are rain clouds in the sky.)
This use is sometimes also explained as using ‘going to’ for the near future.
For this reason, if no time adverbial is added, then ‘soon’ is understood.
‘We’re moving office.’ (sometime in the near future.)
Note that the use of ‘going’ to in this sense doesn’t necessarily mean the anticipated event will take place. This is especially the case with ‘was going to’ which in fact usually indicates that the event did not take place.
I was going to cut the grass today. (but for some reason I didn’t)
Similarly, ‘going to’ + present perfect often indicates that the intended action has not taken place yet.
‘I’ve been going to write to him for months.’ (but I haven’t done so yet).
Also, note that for the immediate future ‘about to’ may be used.
‘I’m about to leave the office. I’ll be back in about 15 minutes.’
3. Present progressive
Like the ‘going to’ form, the present progressive can also be used to refer to a future event which is anticipated in the present, but whereas the keywords for ‘going to ‘are ‘intention’ or ‘cause’, with the present progressive, it is ‘arrangement’ or ‘plan’.
We are having a meeting at 3 o’clock. (A meeting has been arranged for 3 o’clock).
Very often, there is no practical difference between ‘intention’ and arrangement. So, either of the two forms can be used without altering the meaning, but sometimes there is a difference.
An intention shows one’s current state of mind so any sentence with ‘I’m going to ..’ in the sense of ‘intend’ reflects the speaker’s state of mind at that time. An arrangement refers to something already decided, before speaking, and is therefore not necessarily a reflection of the speaker’s current attitude. This can matter in sentences like the following:
‘I’m going to meet an old friend tonight’
(I’d love to come but..) I’m meeting an old friend tonight’
The second could be said, with some reluctance, as an excuse for turning down another invitation,
Another important difference is that whereas an ‘intention’ just involves one individual, an arrangement by definition must involve more than one person.
I’m going to see Mary tonight
I’m seeing Mary tonight.
In the first sentence, it is possible that Mary doesn’t know about the speaker’s intention, but this is not the case in the second sentence.
Another point to make about this use of the present progressive is that it can only be used to refer to actions with a conscious human agency. Neither of the following is possible:
He is having a nervous breakdown next week.
The volcano is having an eruption tomorrow.
4. Simple present
(This is often overlooked by even advanced students)
The simple present is used to refer to ten future events which are considered unalterable, that is they are considered to be 100% certain to happen. It is commonly used with timetables and schedules.
The train for Manchester leaves at 14.30.
The election takes place this Thursday.
The difference between ‘I am leaving the company next month’ and ‘I leave the company this month’ is that the latter implies that it is impossible for this not to happen.
- Will/Shall + Progressive Infinitive
- i) Just like the progressive form in the past and present, the future progressive is used to refer to temporary situations, usually at a point in time
‘I’ll be taking my exam this time tomorrow.’
- ii) Another use is to refer to future events when you wish to minimize the volitional or intentional aspect.
I’ll move to my new office next month.
I’ll be moving to my new office next month.
The second sentence could be paraphrased as ‘Next month this event is going to happen’ and discourages any connection with the subject’s will or intention.
This form is useful when you wish to politely turn down a request.
‘I’d like to help you but unfortunately, I’ll be working at that time.’We also provide you with exercises to test your understanding!
Complete the following with verbs from the box, and decide whether the ‘will’ or ‘going to’ form is more appropriate.
- You need to turn the cooker down or those vegetables ……………
- Brown …………. the company next month. She told me this morning.
- I didn’t realize you were going to Italy tomorrow. I’m sure you ….. a great time.
Choose between the simple and continuous form in the following sentences.
Sorry but I won’t attend / won’t be attending the ceremony on Friday.
If you want, I’ll pick up / I’ll be picking up the visitors from the airport.
Will you make / Will you be making a presentation at the meeting or are you just going to observe?
Have you decided yet whether you will make / will be making a presentation at the meeting?
Answers to Exercises
- You need to turn the cooker down or those vegetables are going to burn.
- Brown is going to leave the company next month. She told me this morning.
- I didn’t realize you were going to Italy tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll have a great time.
Sorry, but I won’t be attending the ceremony on Friday.
If you want, I’ll pick up the visitors from the airport.
Will you be making a presentation at the meeting or are you just going to observe?
Have you decided yet whether you will make a presentation at the meeting?
Make sure you have a clear understanding of the differences between the various future forms; being able to show in your essays that you can use the different forms correctly will help boost your chances of getting a higher grade for accuracy and range.
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