A roadmap of future tenses

How do we talk about the future in English? Ask a native speaker and he or she will usually say “will” and “going to”. However, there are many more options available for you to use. Here is a comprehensive overview of tenses and structures you can use when talking about the future, with explanations and examples to help you use them. This post is suitable for English learners with an advanced level English, and trainee English teachers.

Have you lost your way? It's time to consult a map. (stock image)

Future use of present tenses

We can use the present simple for something that is part of a timetable: his plane leaves at eight this evening. We also use it after words like if or when or after. Many learners will say “when I will go” because this would be natural in their first language, but the correct form is “when I go”. In English when itself creates the time and so a future tense is unnecessary. We can also use be + infinitive to talk about plans, schedules and arrangements, often of a formal or official nature: President Trump is to visit the UK this year.

The present continuous (I am, you are etc. with the base form of the verb plus -ing) is used to focus on activity at the moment or in a current period but can also be used to describe fixed arrangements in the future. Often this could be things we have in our diary such as I’m seeing the dentist tomorrow. Or we might be trying to find out what the arrangement is: who’s cooking dinner tonight?

Going to

Contrast the last question with who’s going to cook dinner tonight? This focuses on a decision that has already been made, because going to (which is used with I am, you are etc. before it and the base form of the verb after) introduces the idea of intention. In both examples, we are describing something pre-existing, which is a fixed arrangement or decision that has already been made.  By extension, we also use going to in order to describe a future based on present evidence; in other words, for which the conditions already exist. The sky is dark. It’s going to rain. Where is the rain? It’s in the sky. It has just not reached us yet. In this case the present continuous would not work because it’s raining means the rain is happening now.

Will

If I say, “it will rain a lot this winter”, however, where is the rain? It does not exist yet, but I feel safe in making this prediction because it is what usually happens. When we use will in all followed the base form of the verb, we describe a future independent of the present: in 2029 driverless cars will fill the roads. We also use will in the moment a decision is made: I will cook dinner tonight because. Will is a starting point; it brings the future into existence.

Shall versus will        

In some countries, a difference between shall and will is still taught. This sometimes confuses learners when they discover that, apart from a couple of exceptions, the difference is old fashioned and only matters today in the stories of a writer like Agatha Christie. One reason for this is that we usually contract will and shall when speaking so that he will or he shall become he’ll. The exceptions are Shall I, which is used for an offer, as in Shall I get you a drink?  or in a suggestion as in Shall we go to the cinema? If you use will instead of shall in either example, you are making a genuine question to which you do not know the answer. Shall also still keeps its importance in contracts and official documents as it expresses obligation: the Seller shall deliver the goods by the fifth of April.

The future continuous         

When we talk about something in progress in the future, we use the future continuous: I’ll be making dinner this evening. The future continuous is formed by will + be + the -ing form of the verb (also known as the participle). We can also use the future continuous to talk about plans, but there is a difference with going to. When I say, “The London School of English will be starting a new course this summer”, I am just stating a fact about something happening in the future. When I say, “The London School of English is going to start a new course this summer”, I am stressing the school’s intention to do this. Consequently, it would be more natural to say, “I wonder if I will be working here in a few years’ time”, because essentially, I am talking about something out of my control. The answer depends on my employers, on market forces etc.

The future perfect

We use perfect tenses to look back from a particular point of time. The future perfect simple is formed by will + have + past participle. When I write, the London School will have taught x number of students by the end of this year I am looking back from a fixed point in the future (by the end of this year) to something completed during the intervening period. It is very often used with by or its equivalent and is very useful when making forecasts. Put simply, it is just the present perfect, I have written 802 words, plus will: I will have written 1,050 words by the end of this blog post. The continuous form also describes something made by a particular point in the future but allows that it is still in progress: The London School of English will have been training students for 107 years by December 2019; and, hopefully, will keep doing so for many years.

The future in the past

From time to time when talking about the past, we want to describe something that had not happened, that was in the future at that point. To do that we simply put the operative part of the verb (the part of the verb that carries tense information) in the past. This means is to becomes was to, is going to becomes was going to, is doing becomes was doing, and will becomes its past: would. I might write, for example: Last year Laura was to visit Germany. She was going to Heidelberg where she would stay for a month. She was leaving on the tenth of March, but she got ill and so could not go. Notice, I have just written going to Heidelberg not going to go to. Often that extra go is too much work, and we don’t bother to use it after going to.


This blog post was written by Richard, one of our trainers at The London School of English

Glossary

  • base form of the verb - this is the infinitive without 'to', also known as the "bare infinitive". For example, the base form of the verb "to go" is "go"


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