How we talk about future situations

2015-09-07 by . 4 comments

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People learning English are often confused by the many ways in which it is possible to talk about future events. They are not helped by the fact that some writers (eg, Sinclair1) claim that the construction with will in front of the base form (bare infinitive) of the verb is the future tense, while others (eg, Quirk et al2) claim that there is no future tense in English. Learners who have read in one book (eg, Thomson and Martinet3) that the BE + going to form expresses the subject’s intention to perform a future action will wonder what intention is present in It’s going to rain. Some course books appear to claim that there is only one way of expressing the future in any given situation, but learners will meet many native speakers who claim that several ways are often possible, and that there is no difference between them. In this blog post, I hope to clear up some of the confusion. Let’s begin by making two clear points: 1. There is little point in considering that English has a future tense. It is more realistic (and helpful) to think that there are several ways in English of expressing futurity. 2. Although each of the ways expresses a different way of looking at future situations, the speaker often has completely free choice at the moment of utterance, and there can be some overlap of meaning. There is often no single—or even ‘most appropriate’—form for a given situation. Now let’s look at the five most common ways of talking about future situations. We’ll do this by considering what forms are possible for the example “Lindsay (fly) to New York next month”.

1. The present simple (non-past, unmarked) tense  – Lindsay flies

In English, as in many other languages, the so-called ‘present’ tense functions more like a default tense; it is used when there is no need for any additional temporal or aspectual information carried by other forms. The time of the situation denoted by the present simple tense of the verb can be past, present, future, or even unspecified. Let’s look at Lindsay’s future flight. If we imagine the speaker mentally seeing Lindsay’s schedule, and presenting a neutral fact without any of the overtones suggested by other ways of expressing the future (which we shall come to below), we can simply say:

Lindsay flies to London next week.

The futurity is shown by the context (for example, the previous mention of a schedule) or by explicit-markers (such as next week in the example above).

2. The present progressive (continuous) – Lindsay is flying

A better name for this aspect might be durative, as it is used when the speaker wishes to indicate both that the situation spoken of has duration and that that duration is limited. The fact that the situation has a beginning and an end, and that these are not considered remote in time, is more important than precisely when these occur. Consider these three utterances:

1. I am writing some notes about the English language. 2. The number 22 tram is running through Florence this week. 3. I am meeting my wife at the pub this evening.

In [1], the limited duration of the writing is clearly understood from the context. In [2], the known context of the normal route of the 22 tram (which does not usually include Florence) confirms the limited duration of the situation. It is perfectly correct for this to be said at 3 a.m., when no number 22 tram is actually running. I, the speaker, can say [3] because I know that my wife and I arranged the meeting this morning. The arrangement to meet has limited duration – it began this morning and ends when we actually meet. Considered this way, it is useful to think that one of the ways of using the progressive form is to indicate an arrangement. If an arrangement of limited duration is what the speaker has in mind, then the example sentence is now realised as:

Lindsay is flying to London next week.

As with the present simple, the futurity is shown by the context or by explicit time-markers.

3. BE + going to – Lindsay is going to fly

Forms with BE + going to possibly originated in such utterances as:

4. We are going to meet Andrea at the cinema.

These types of phrases are spoken when we were literally going, as in ‘on our way to meet Andrea’. At the moment of speaking there was present evidence of the future meeting. This use has become extended to embrace any action for which there is present evidence – things do not have to be literally moving. Consider now these two utterances:

5. Look at those black clouds. It’s going to rain. 6. Luke is going to see Bob Dylan in concert next year.

In [5] the present evidence is clear – the black clouds. In [6], the present evidence may be the tickets for the concert that the speaker has seen on Luke’s desk, or it may simply be the knowledge in the speaker’s mind that s/he has somehow acquired. This explains why, when the grammatical subject of the verb is capable of planning, there may be little practical difference between the use of the progressive form and the BE + going to form. However, with a grammatical subject incapable of planning, there is a difference:

3. I am meeting my wife at the pub this evening. 3a. I am going to meet my wife at the pub this evening.

Compared with:

5. It’s going to rain. 5a. It’s raining. 5b. *It’s raining tomorrow.

In [3], the speaker has made the arrangement with their wife. In [3a], the present evidence can be any or all of the speaker having made the arrangement, having been informed by their wife of the arrangement, or having recently made a plan. The circumstances surrounding the situations in [3] and [3a] differ, but the practical result is the same: the speaker has free choice between the two forms. Neither is ‘better’, ‘more appropriate’, or ‘more correct’. In [5], the present evidence is something like the presence of black clouds, or the speaker’s knowledge of the weather forecast. In [5a], it is impossible for an arrangement to be made for future rain, and therefore the progressive form used here cannot be referring to future arrangement. The context will therefore inform us that rain is actually falling as the utterance is made. The addition of a time-indicator cannot make the impossible possible, therefore [5b] is not a grammatical utterance. If the speaker has present evidence of next week’s flight, then the example will be realized as

Lindsay is going to fly to London next week.

4. Modal willLindsay will fly

Will is a modal and, like the other modals, has two core ideas. The two core ideas for most modals are: (a) the ‘extrinsic’ meaning, referring to the degree of certainty of the event/state, and (b) the ‘intrinsic’ meaning, reflecting such concepts as: ability, necessity, obligation, necessity, permission, possibility, volition, etc. The extrinsic meaning of  will is exemplified in:

7. Emma left three hours ago, so she will be in Manchester by now. 8. There will be hotels on the moon within the next 50 years. 9. The afternoon will be bright and sunny, though there may be rain in the north.

In all three examples, the speaker suggests 100% probability, i.e. absolute certainty; (may would imply possibility, must logical certainty, to take examples of two other modals). Note that while certainty in [8] and [9] is about the future, in [7] it is about the present. It is the absolute certainty, in the minds of speaker/writer and listener/reader, that can give the impression that forms using ‘the will future’ are some way of presenting ‘the future as fact’. Some writers therefore call this form ‘the Future Simple’. Weather forecasters, writers of business/scientific reports, deliverers of presentations, etc., frequently use will, and learners who encounter English more through reading native writers than hearing native speakers informally may assume that it is a ‘neutral’ or ‘formal’ future. In fact the particular native writer or speaker is simply opting to stress certainty rather than arrangement, plan or present evidence. The intrinsic meaning of will is exemplified in:

10. I’ll carry your bag for you.   11. Will you drive me to the airport, please?   12. Jed will leave his mobile switched on in meetings. It’s so annoying when it rings.

These examples show what we might loosely call volition, the willingness or determination of the subject of the modal to carry out the action. Note that [12] is not about the future, and in [10] and [11] the futurity is incidental. It is context rather than words which gives the meaning. So, our original example can clearly be realized as:

Lindsay will fly to London next week.

Without expanded context or co-text, we cannot be sure of what is implied by Lindsay will fly . If the background has been that she is scheduled to fly next month, but there is an urgent need for her to be in London soon, the speaker of this utterance is indicating Lindsay’s willingness to fly earlier than intended. In a different context, known to both speaker and listener, the speaker is indicating the certainty of Lindsay’s flight tomorrow, possibly even because of the speaker’s own volition. Outside the context of gap-fill exercises this is not a problem. Note that some writers used to insist that for this way of expressing the future, shall could (Alexander4) or ought to (Wood5) be used for first person forms. This ‘rule’ was never true except for a minority of speakers of BrE, and can safely be ignored by learners.

5. Modal will+ progressive – Lindsay will be flying

will be … -ing can have two possible overtones, both stemming from the combination of the ideas of certainty (will) and limited duration (progressive form). The first possibility is that the speaker is describing a situation already begun, having duration, and not completed by the time mentioned or implied.This would be explicit in:

13. At 5 o’clock tomorrow Henry will be driving up the M6.

The second possibility is that the speaker is more concerned with the pure certainty of the action happening than any volitional aspect that might be implied by the use of will by itself. This idea can be illustrated more clearly in the following examples. If someone says “I’d like to know what Joan thinks about this”, responses might be:

14. I’ll see her tomorrow; I’ll ask her.  15. I’m seeing her tomorrow. I’ll ask her. 16. I’m going to see her tomorrow. I’ll ask her.  17. I’ll be seeing her tomorrow. I’ll ask her.

In all four examples, the I’ll ask her indicates the speaker’s willingness (confirmed by context). In the first half of the utterance, [14] indicates the speaker’s willingness to see her, [15] the speaker’s knowledge of an arrangement already made to see her, [16] the speaker’s awareness of present evidence of the future meeting and [17] the speaker’s simple presentation of the fact of the future meeting. It is claimed by some writers, with some justification, that the use of will be …-ing implies, by its lack of reference to intention, volition or arrangement, a ‘casual’ future, the ‘future as a matter of course’ (Leech6).. So, the realization of our standard example can be:

Lindsay will be flying to London tomorrow.

Other ways of talking about the future

We have looked at five common ways of expressing the future. We will now look very briefly at other ways. So far we have considered the five ways of referring to the future that are considered by some to be ‘tense’ forms: Present Progressive, Present Simple,  BE going towill, and will be + …-ing. There are many other ways of referring to future situations, each with its own particular shade of meaning. Some of these are considered briefly below.

BE + to

This form is not common in informal conversation. It refers to something that is to happen in the future as a plan or decree:

Lindsay is to fly to London next week.

It is common in news reports. In headlines BE is frequently omitted:

18. Obama to meet Putin.

BE + about to

This form is used to refer to planned future events that are expected to happen soon:

19. 2,300 workers at the Manchester factory are about to lose their jobs.

The soon-ness often carries the idea that the subject is very close to the point of doing something:

Lindsay is about to leave for the airport.

Other idioms with BE

There are a number of other expressions with BE which have some form of modal-type meaning (ability, obligation, etc), and which point to the future. These include: be able to, be bound to, be certain to, be due to, be likely to/that, be meant to, be obliged to, be supposed to, be sure to.

Idioms with HAVE

Expressions with HAVE, such as have (got) to and had better, have some form of modal-type meaning (necessity, obligation, etc) pointing to the future.

Lindsay had better fly to London next week.

Other modals

Apart from will, discussed earlier, other modals can also used with future reference:

  • Lindsay can fly to London next week. (possibility/ability/permission)
  • Lindsay could fly to London next week. (more remote possibility/ability)
  • Lindsay may fly to London next week. (possibility/permission)
  • Lindsay might fly to London next week. (more remote possibility/ permission)
  • Lindsay must fly to London next week. (obligation)
  • Lindsay should fly to London next week. (possibility/suggestion)

Expressions with would, with some form of quasi-modal meaning (preference) pointing to the future, include: would rather, would sooner, would just as soon. Verb + to- infinitive Some full verbs, such as hope or want, indicate that the action of the complement verb will be in the future (expressing future possibilities). Such verbs are usually followed by the to-infinitive:

Lindsay hopes to fly to London next week.

Examples include: agree, ask, allow, aspire, attempt, cause, choose, consent, dare, decide, decline, encourage* expect, hope, instruct, intend, offer, mean, need, permit, persuade, plan, prepare, promise, propose, swear, remember, tell, threaten, try, want, warn, wish* Some verbs (e.g. those marked with an asterisk above) can be followed by object + infinitive:

John expects Lindsay to fly to London next week.

A small number of verbs are followed by an object + bare infinitive, e.g. have, help, let, make: Have Mr Smiley come in,  please.

Verb + gerund

When a gerund follows a verb, or verb + object, the meaning is normally that the situations described are already in existence, i.e. they are not future situations:

Lindsay hated flying.

However, a small number of verbs followed by a gerund complement point to the future. These include consider, contemplate, fancy, feel like, put off, suggest.

Lindsay is considering flying to London next week.


1 Sinclair, J (1990.255),  Collins Cobuild English Grammar, London: HarperCollins 2 Quirk, R et al, (1985.213),  A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Harlow: Longman. 3 Thomson, A J and Martinet, AV (1980.184),b A Practical English Grammar, 4th edn, Oxford: OUP 4 Alexander, L G, (1988.178), Longman English Grammar, Harlow: Longman 5 Wood, F T, (1954.219), The Groundwork of English Grammar, London: Macmillan 6 Leech, G (2004.68), Meaning and the English Verb, 3rd edn, Harlow: Pearson

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  • Robusto says:

    Nice article. Comprehensive and authoritative.

  • Yanglish says:

    Thanks for your article about future events. It is clearly expressed and referenced.

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