What are you doing tonight? – the future in English

by Kate Woodford

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?)

36 thoughts on “What are you doing tonight? – the future in English

  1. Aleksandra

    Thank you so much for this post! It’s really helpful. Finally I’m starting to understand Future Tenses.
    Great blog, by the way!

  2. Maq

    Great Blog. I was looking a blog like that so that I can improve my grammar. I am looking forward for more future post. 🙂

    1. Maq

      I just want to ask a simple question. He comes late. He(subject) comes(verb) Late(is a subject complement). In my opinion LATE is a subject complement because it tells us about the nature of the Subject. Am I right?

      1. Hi, I would say that ‘late’ is an adverb here rather than an adjective – so it is a complement to the verb rather than the subject. ‘come’ as a verb is not usually followed by an adjective, so you cannot say ‘he comes happy’ or ‘the sky comes blue’ (except maybe in poems). Hope that explains it!

  3. You really went into details! Thank you. I first read very similar explanation in Grammarway 4 by Jennie Dooley, Express Publishing .I have been using the grammar in my teaching since early 90s, it seems to me.

  4. Suzette

    Hi, could someone please explain when to use “going to…” or “going to go to…”?
    eg: What are you doing this summer?
    I’m going to France.
    I’m going to go to France.

  5. katewoodford

    Hi Suzette. A good question! The differences in use between the present continuous (I’m going to France) and ‘be going to’ (I’m going to go to France) are subtle. Neither would be strictly incorrect here, but broadly speaking, if the event is arranged and in your diary, you would be more likely to use the present continuous. If you are stating an intention, for example because you have just made up your mind, ‘going to’ would be a natural choice, so for example: ‘I’ve decided! I’m going to go to France for my holidays.’ I hope that helps! All the best, Kate

  6. katewoodford

    Suzette, I do sympathize! I think the future is especially tricky. You’re asking all the right questions, though, so I feel sure your English is excellent. All the best, Kate

  7. Thank you very much, Kate, for these explanations. English is full of subtleties that ,sometimes, English speakers as a second language find it difficult to grasp.

  8. Nancy

    Hi, Could you please explain What is the difference between:
    ‘I graduate next month’
    ‘I will graduate next month’
    ‘I’m going to gradaute next month’
    And please when do I use them?
    Thank you

  9. Mayam

    Is it wrong to ask: What are you going to do tonight? My book gives only the Present Continuous for this question and you’re using it, too. Why? I can see it’s used a lot online.Thanks

  10. Sometimes I’m so tall,I could write my initials in the moon dust. Other times so small ,I can barely look up. No need to see my name up in the heavens,better to hear it whispered in my ear by her my love. As we both explode like Supernovas. The Light So Bright.

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