Seven Ways to Talk About The Future in English

Talking about the future in English is done differently than talking about the present or the past. This is probably because the present and the past are more certain than the future. If you were to ask me where I am and what I am doing at this very moment, I could tell you. But I could not be as certain where I will be, or what I will be doing 24 hours from now. This lack of certainty about the future influences how we talk about it.

Now, before getting into the topic, I should mention that I discuss English tenses and aspects in quite a bit of detail in this article, so you might want to read it first. Otherwise, let’s get started.

Does English have a future tense?

In a way it does, but strictly speaking, no. English does not have a future tense in the same way that it has a present and a past tense. I will assume that you are familiar with the present and past tenses, their constructions and meanings, as well as the progressive and perfect aspects. And I mention this because, as you will soon see, we use the present tense more or less exclusively for talking about the future. Here are some examples, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean:

  1. Can we meet next Thursday at 9:00?
  2. I’m spending the day in London tomorrow.
  3. My flight leaves at 6:30.
  4. Will you be in the office before 8:00?
  5. I’m going to go and get some lunch.

The five sentences above represent the most usual ways to refer to the future. What do you notice about their grammatical characteristics? How would you describe them, grammatically?

Sentence 1, we can see clearly refers to the future because of “next Thursday.” But, what if the speaker had asked, “Can you help me with something now?”

Sentence 2 also clearly refers to the future because of “tomorrow,” but the speaker could just as well have said, “I’m spending the day in London today.”

Sentence 3 has the same construction as, “A flight leaves every day at 6:30.”

Sentences 4 and 5 are the only two that always refer to the future. Sentence 4 uses will, which is a modal auxiliary verb (you can just call it a modal); and sentence 5 uses the expression “be going to,” which always has a future referent.

The thing is, sentence 4 is grammatically no different than sentence 1, and sentence 5 is grammatically no different than sentence 2. So, why does English have so many different ways to refer to the future?

To be honest, I’m not sure that I can answer that question satisfactorily. English, like every other human language, has developed over a long period of time, and gets passed on, generation by generation. That English is now spoken in so many parts of the world by such a large number of people is due to historical circumstances. In other words, English was not intended to be a language for the world. English native speakers don’t have any problems with the variety of ways to refer to the future, in fact just the opposite: we use the variety to our benefit. And you can learn to do this, too!

So, let’s now look at the relationships between form and meaning, starting with the present-progressive.

The present-progressive with future meaning

Personal plans are expressed using the present-progressive with future meaning. When I tell you, “I’m having dinner with an old friend this weekend,” I’m telling you about my personal plan.

The going-to future

Intentions are expressed using the, so called, going-to future. “I’m going to paint the kitchen next weekend,” or “I’m going to visit Oslo someday;” these are intentions, in other words, things that we have in mind to do. The construction of the going-to future is identical to every other sentence that uses the progressive aspect, i.e., “be” + -ing,” but the expression going to always has a referent that looks forward, relative to the time of speaking. This is also true when we use the going-to future in the past tense, as in: “I was going to pick up a pizza at Vesuvio’s on the way home, but then I remembered that they were closed.”

Besides intentions, the going-to future also expresses what is imminent, i.e., just about to happen. “Look at those dark clouds. We’d better find cover. It’s going to rain.”

The going-to future is used a lot in English, but most English speakers, especially native speakers, don’t say “going to,” but rather “gonna,” which is quicker and easier. Generally, when you are writing you should spell out “going to” in full; though in emails and messages that are not formal, it is okay to write “gonna.” You also might see “gonna,” as well as “wanna,” meaning “want to” in subtitles.

The present-simple with future meaning

“What time does the meeting start?” “When does the next train for Frankfurt leave?” The present-simple tense refers to a future that is scheduled. You might think of it as a stronger, or more fixed future compared with the present-progressive. If you want to sound like your plans are unalterable, use the present-simple:

  • George: “Can you meet me for lunch tomorrow, Martin?”
  • Martin: “Tomorrow? Sorry, George, I’m in Dublin tomorrow. Next week, perhaps?”
The will future

The best way to understand the will future is that it is neutral. The will future is not used to express plans, nor intentions. Therefore, if you don’t yet have a plan, use will, e.g., “Oh, no! I left my newspaper on the train. I’ll have to buy another one.”

The will future is also used when making predictions, e.g., “They said that tomorrow will be warm and sunny. I won’t need my jacket.”

Future conditional sentences also use will: “If it’s warm and sunny this weekend, I’ll go for a hike.”

Will and shall are both modals, and shall is sometimes used instead of will. Modals, as you may remember, are a type of help verb that modify the meaning of the main verb in the sentence. Can is also a modal. Compare the following two sentences, paying attention to how can influences the meaning:

  1. My sister plays piano with a jazz group.
  2. My brother can play piano, but he never does.

In sentence 1 we understand that the speaker’s sister knows how to play the piano because she plays in a group, therefore she must be able to play. Sentence 2 tells us that the speaker’s brother knows how to play, but does not use his abilities. So, can, in sentence 2, expresses ability.

Modals have a range of meaning, but by and large they express ability, opportunity, possibility, probability, and obligation.

Now, I don’t wish to focus that much on modals, but for reference, the following are modals: can, could, shall, should, may, might, and must.

As I mentioned earlier, shall is sometimes used instead of will, but shall has some limitations that you should be aware of. The big limitation is that shall should only be used in the first person. If you use shall in the second or third person (you or they), it sounds like you are giving an order. Using shall offers some variety to constantly using will, though you will tend to sound somewhat formal: “The telephone is ringing. Shall I answer it, or will you?”

Will be doing

As I mentioned previously, will is not used when referring to plans or intentions, but an interesting usage could be described as “in the course of events.” Thus, you could say, “If things go as expected, this time next month I’ll be lying on a white sandy beach.”

Will have done

I have one last thing to say about will: when you combine will with the present-perfect, or present-perfect-progressive, you can make sentences like these:

  1. I expect that by July, Marc will have completed his thesis.
  2. By this time next month, Gretta will have been working here for 25 years.

You may find such constructions unnecessarily stylish or cumbersome, but provided you can use the perfect and perfect-progressive aspects in the present and past tenses, it’s not really more difficult to add will to jump forward in time.

In conclusion

English has a variety of ways to refer to the future, and the best way depends upon what you are talking about, e.g., plans, intentions, etc. In my experience as an English teacher, I observe that English learners tend to overuse will, for instance asking, “What will you do this weekend?” instead of, “What are you doing this weekend?” A native speaker would usually ask “What are you doing…” because it implies that the other person, and is considered more polite.

Finally, if you haven’t been using “gonna,” I recommend that you start. Native English speakers are always talking about what they’re gonna do, and you can, too!

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