Twice this week I have heard the comment from an English learner: “I find the future tense in English so complicated!” As usual a look of bewilderment follows when I explain that there is no future tense in English.
What? But we talk about the future all the time – how is that possible if there is no tense for it? Well, we get around it by using one of several standard ways of speaking about future events, each one with its own particular meaning.
1. WILL. Do you think John will visit us this summer?
2. GOING TO. I’m going to resign from my job.
3. PRESENT CONTINUOUS. Manchester United are playing at Wembley tonight.
4. SIMPLE PRESENT. My flight leaves at 7.00 tonight.
With so much variety, which one should I choose? If you remember these simple principles, you will choose the right one most of the time.
For predicting – talking about what I think will happen in the future, without any reference to the present, we use will or going to, but not the present continuous. I can say:
I think the price of fuel will fall / is going to fall next year,
but I can’t say *I think the price of fuel is falling next year.
When we talk about future plans – things that have already been decided, we use going to or present continuous, but not ‘will’. I can say:
Where are Steve and Barbara going to spend / spending their holidays?
But I can’t say *Where will Steve and Barbara spend their holidays?
When we talk about a future action at the moment when we decide to do it, we use will. I can say
It’s getting late. I think we‘ll go home,
but I can’t say *It’s getting late. I think I’m going / going to go home.
When we have present evidence that something is going to happen (that is, we can see it coming) we use going to:
Slow down! We‘re going to hit that car!
I can’t say *Slow down! We will hit / we’re hitting that car.
When we talk about future events that are already on a programme, such as a timetable, we can use simple present:
What time does the next train leave for Wellington?
This little summary doesn’t say everything there is to say about the future, as there are some other forms that we can also use:
5. WILL BE + ING. Fred will be having dinner with us tomorrow.
6. TO BE TO. The President is to visit Florida later this month.
7. WILL HAVE + past participle (future perfect). The workmen will have replaced all the windows by next Tuesday.
These three will be the subject of another post.
Practice Makes Perfect: English Verbs
Idiomatic English: A Workbook for Mastering Verb Phrases
English Phrasal Verbs in Use: Advanced