What are you doing tonight? – the future in EnglishJune 25, 2014
The future in English is complicated. The problem is that there are so many different ways of talking about it, and the differences between those various ways are sometimes quite slight. This week and next, we’re looking at the range of tenses and structures that we use to talk about the period of time that is to come.
We’ll start with a really useful tense – the present continuous (be + v-ing), (Notice, by the way, that we’re not starting with ‘will’ – more of that later…):
We are having dinner with friends tonight.
I’m seeing the dentist tomorrow.
What are you doing this weekend?
I’m starting my course next month.
We use this tense for talking about the planned future – things that we have already arranged to do. We use it both in statements and questions, and we use it a lot. It may be useful to think of the present continuous as the ‘diary’ tense – the tense that you use to talk about meetings, appointments, etc. that need arranging – the sort of future events that you might write in your diary.
Now let’s move on to a structure that looks similar and, in fact, is used in a fairly similar way: be going to. Like the present continuous, this structure is used for talking about things that we intend to do in the future. The difference is that we usually use it for those things that we probably wouldn’t write in a diary – things that we intend to do but which do not need us to make arrangements:
I’m quite tired- I’m going to have an early night tonight.
I’m going to call Louisa tonight and see how she’s doing.
I think she’s going to speak to Dan about it.
What are you going to get for Sophie’s birthday?
(There is another use of ‘going to’ that I’ll come to in a moment.)
And so to will. It’s important to note that we generally don’t use ‘will’ to talk about our plans. We do often use it to talk about the future, but in two quite particular ways and neither has to do with plans or intentions. Here’s the first one:
I think he’ll (= he will) be pleased to see you.
I’m sure Sophie will do well in her exams – she’s really clever.
I never see anyone in that shop – I bet it will close soon.
‘Will’, then, is used for predicting events, for saying that, based on what we know, we think that something will happen in the future. Note how we often use phrases such as ‘I think’, ‘I’m sure’ and ‘I bet’ before ‘will’. These can make our comments on what will happen in the future a little less certain. Likewise, we often use ‘probably’ after it:
I’ll probably be home before midnight.
We also use ‘going to’ to predict events. There is a difference here, but it is quite slight. If we think that something will happen because of something that we can see at the time, we often use ‘going to’:
It’s going to rain, isn’t it? Look at those clouds.
You’re going to fall off that chair! Come on, sit up properly!
Returning to ‘will’, the other big future use of ‘will’ is for talking about things that we have just decided to do:
A: The train takes three hours.
B: Does it? In that case I think I’ll drive there.
A: I don’t have enough time to go shopping.
B: Don’t worry – I’ll do the shopping.
Note that the second of these is also an offer. ‘Will’ is used for suddenly making offers that we have not planned.
Well, I hope that helps with the future tenses. Next week we’ll be looking at the future continuous, among other tenses. (Did you see what I just did there?)