Future-related grammar structures are useful because we can talk about plans, predictions, make promises, and extend offers. With the first conditional, we can also make threats. Initially, talking about the future can seem daunting to the beginner, because there are multiple ways of doing so, and while each way may look quite similar to another, the meanings change in subtle ways. Let’s take a look at the various ways we can talk about the future:
The modal verb “will” is already familiar to most pre-intermediate students when they are introduced to this subject. Like other modals such as can, should, need to, have to, and must, the verb that follows is always in the bare infinitive. This is straightforward, as obviously we don’t use the past tense verbs when talking about the future! However, it is useful to point this out, because students might fall into the trap of seeing the verb in the present tense and thus making agree with the subject. For example, “She will go shopping,” is correct while “She will goes shopping,” is not.
The many uses of will
Will can be used to make predictions and promises as well as to extend offers and make instant decisions. Some examples of these uses follow:
- Manchester United will win this match. (prediction)
- I will never lie to you. (promise)
- I will help you with the unpacking. (offer)
- I will hang out with my friends tonight. (instant decision)
Note that the context can change the meaning. For the student reader, context is the situation where anything is said or written. For example, “I will help you with the unpacking” can be an offer or an instant decision, depending on interpretation. This is a very fine line, and in most cases it is not worth worrying about.
Also, whenever the first conditional is used, one can make a threat: “If you come home late, you will be in trouble!” We won’t talk about this usage here than this because it fits more neatly with discussing the conditionals.
What about other ways to talk about the future? There are two other methods: be going to and using the present continuous for future arrangements. This is where it gets a bit confusing, especially with using will versus be going to. First, let’s discuss be going to.
Be going to has less functions than will
Be going to has two principle uses: to make predictions and to communicate plans and intentions. This is confusing because in some ways it is very similar to will. What’s the difference between making a prediction with will versus be going to?
Predictions can either be based on belief or opinion, or on evidence. When you believe something will happen in the future, you use will. Let’s return to our example of Manchester United: Say the score is a tie, such as 1 to 1. No one really knows for certain who is going to win the match. There is no strong evidence indicating either way which team will break the tie and win the match. Sure, we can believe Manchester United is the better team based on its prior history, but there are a lot of other factors that go into determining the outcome of a football match. For example, there could be home field advantage, the weather could change, the referee could make a crucial call, or a player might become injured. The outcome is really up to chance. There’s no strong evidence that supports Manchester United winning the match.
Now let’s say that the score is 2 to 0, Manchester United. This situation is a bit different, because it would be very difficult, if not unlikely that the other team will score the points needed to win the match. Sure, such an event can happen but the odds are not favorable. There is evidence, therefore Manchester United is going to win. Because of the uncertain nature of the future, it is possible this prediction will turn out to be untrue, but it’s unlikely.
Another example is the weather – If we talk about the weather tomorrow, we use will. Yes, there is some meteorological evidence that experts can use to forecast the weather, but it’s not strong. How many times were you told that there will be rain, but it doesn’t happen? You spend all day carrying an umbrella but never use it. And then when you least expect it, rain comes yet there’s no umbrella to be found. How about when you spend hours washing your windows in the hot sun only to find dark clouds gathering in the horizon shortly thereafter? The behavior of the weather is quite uncertain despite our technological tools.
However, let’s say there are dark clouds quickly gathering and you hear thunder in the distance. At the point, we can say that it is going to rain. There’s some pretty strong evidence because you can see it with your own eyes.
So, to review, both will and be going to can make predictions, but one is based on belief or opinion and the other is based on evidence. Which prediction is stronger? Let’s say the football match is 0 to 0. You friend at the pub slyly grins and says, “Manchester United is going to win.” As a native speaker supporting the other team, you might be a little irritated or amused at the overconfident nature of your friend’s statement. Sure, we can use be going to to make a prediction based on belief or opinion, but in doing to, it conveys a very strong conviction or hope in the outcome. In this scenario at the pub, taking into consideration the context, one can be cocky, but in a lighthearted way, since it’s a discussion among friends. This is the beautiful yet complex nature of language.
So now that we’ve talked about predictions, let’s turn our discussion to the difference between plans and intentions, and spontaneous decisions.
The timeliness of making a decision or a plan
A decision made by using will happens at the moment it is spoken. There was no thought before and certainly not a plan. Instant decisions and offers are very similar in this regard. Say your friend is struggling with carrying a package upstairs and you notice. You would say something like “I’ll help you with that!” This is both an instant decision and an offer. There was no plan beforehand. Don’t worry about making a distinction between instant decisions and offers – the difference is quite small, but it’s useful to know it’s there and they do overlap.
In contrast, be going to shows intent. There’s a plan that was thought of before, so the actual decision occurred in the past. Let’s examine two sentences: “I’ll fly to America this summer,” and “I’m going to fly to America this summer.” In the first sentence, there’s no plan. I don’t know how much the plane ticket costs nor do I have much of an idea how long I will stay. One can have an interesting conversation:
A: I will fly to America this summer!
B: Oh really? How long do you think you’ll stay?
A: Not sure yet – maybe three weeks?
B: Have you checked the prices online?
A: Not really. I remember that a round-trip ticket costs roughly $1000USD.
Now, let’s contrast this with be going to:
A: I’m going to fly to America this summer!
B: Oh really? How long will you stay?
A: Oh, about three weeks. I plan leave in mid-August and return early September.
B: How much will the ticket cost?
A: I did some checking online. It’s going to cost roughly $1000USD.
Notice how in both conversations a plane ticket was not bought. If a plane ticket was bought, then we have an arrangement and using the present continuous for future arrangement would be more appropriate.
An arrangement is when there is an agreement between you and someone else. Let’s say for example that you made an appointment with your doctor next week. Both you and your doctor know about this. If you say, “I’m going to see my doctor next week,” that means you have a plan but it’s possible that you haven’t made the appointment yet. If you say, “I’m seeing my doctor next week,” that means you have made the appointment. Both you and your doctor (or her secretary) know you are going to be there next week.
The same is true for a trip abroad. Let’s revisit our example about going to America for the summer. If I say that “I’m flying to America this summer,” this means that I have thought about it, made a plan and bought the ticket. Let’s look at the dialogue:
A: I’m flying to America this summer!
B: Oh really? How long are you going to stay?
A: I leave on 17 August and come back 5 September. Roughly three weeks.
B: How much did the ticket cost?
A: It cost about $1000USD.
Notice here how we have definite dates. I’m leaving on 17 August and returning on 5 September. Also notice how the other person asked me in the past tense about the price of the ticket. It is assumed that I had already bought the ticket because when I use the present continuous tense to talk about the future, I am expressing that I have an arrangement – the airline knows I’m going to fly to America, and the only way they are aware of this is if I buy the ticket.
So, let’s wrap up. This was a long article and to the student reader, it still might be confusing. That’s understandable. Just keep practicing! Here’s a helpful chart that I share with my classes on this subject to give you a visual idea of how will, be going to and present continuous for future arrangements work:
Also, here is a useful video I’ve found from BBC on YouTube that explains the differences between these ways of talking about the future. You can turn on the subtitles and slow down the playback if you have difficulty understanding what is being said, but the explanations given are very clear and understandable:
Thank you for reading! I hope that if you’re a teacher, you find this information helpful in planning your lessons, and if you’re a student you feel more confident talking about the future!