English Lessons for Experts: The Future

Having already looked at how we talk about the present and the past, let’s have a look at how we talk about the future in English. You’re probably feeling confident now: maybe you were initially surprised at the complexity of how we refer to the present and/or the past, but now you’ve got this figured out, and you can easily identify how we refer to the future. OK, well, let’s see.

The first thing to be aware of is that in English, there’s strictly no future tense. Now this isn’t nearly as problematic as it sounds as it doesn’t actually stop us from referring to the future. It just means that unlike other languages, English doesn’t have specific verb forms to refer to the future. The result of this is that we use a variety of different forms to refer to the future in different ways. Most of them should still make sense to you, but it means I won’t go into too much detail, as there’s a lot to get through. I’ll try to divide different forms into logical categories:

Future Plans and Intentions

This is often the first aspect of the future learners are taught. We have three main forms here:

·         going to + verb for a plan or intention made before the time of speaking: I’m going to have a party after I graduate next month.

·         present continuous for an arrangement: I’m having a party at 8 tomorrow night. Would you like to come?

·         will + verb for a spontaneous decision: (in reply to the invitation above:) Sure, I’ll come.

Note here that there’s not always a fine distinction between a plan and an arrangement. In the first example, the person intends to have a party next month, but hasn’t done any serious planning for it. In the second, things have been arranged (invitations extended, food and drink bought, apartment cleaned), because the party is tomorrow. Here it’s pretty clear, but at other times it’s hard to know if something is technically just a plan or an arrangement (e.g. if I’ve agreed to have coffee with my friend tomorrow afternoon, but we haven’t decided on an exact time or place). In such cases, we can use going to. Also note how rarely we use will for this function, as most of us plan our lives to some extent. My theory on how we use these forms is based on how likely we think the plans are to happen. Strictly, when we use each form, we’re sure about the future event, but I think we use the present continuous for an arrangement because unconsciously we feel that it’s more likely to go ahead, given the work gone into it. Using a present tense therefore makes it feel more real. Intentions and plans that are only in our mind perhaps feel more subject to change, so we use something that looks like the present continuous (I’m going to), but that in fact puts a little distance between us and the verb that follows it. Finally, using will feels most like the future (as we mostly only use will to refer to the future), so we use it for spontaneous decisions, as we’re unconsciously aware that we might realise that we have a prior engagement which means we have to reverse our decision (which does happen). using a word strictly associated with the future therefore makes it feel more distant, less real.



This is usually the second aspect of the future students learn:

·         will + verb for a general prediction about the future, usually based on our knowledge or opinions: In the future, we’ll all have robot butlers. Can be modified with I think… or I believe… to make it seem less certain, or more clearly an opinion.

·         going to + verb for a specific prediction based on direct evidence: You’re too fast, you’re going to crash!

These are not always used correctly by native speakers, with going to often being used when will would make more sense (the evidence strictly needs to be before our eyes to use going to). This isn’t really a problem though, as it’s generally not important for us to know if someone is basing a prediction on present evidence or not.


Everything Else

And there are all the other less common forms:

·         will + verb for future facts: Tomorrow it’ll be Saturday. Not used very often, and often hard to distinguish from a predicition, e.g. I’ll be here when you arrive tomorrow. Not that it’s important to make such a distinction, as they’re basically the same. 

·        will + verb for promises: I’ll help you move house. A pretty important social function, but grammatically can usually fall under the umbrellas of future facts, predictions, or spontaneous decisions.

·         “future continuous” to refer to an action in progress at a particular moment in the future: When you arrive at work tomorrow, I’ll still be lying in bed! Structurally similar to the present and past continuous (will + to be + present participle), and with a similar meaning.

·         Present simple for timetabled events: The flight leaves at 7am tomorrow morning.

·         Future perfect (simple and continuous) to refer to actions or states completed (usually simple) or in progress (usually continuous) before a point in the future: By March 2018, we will have completed construction (simple). In June I’ll have been working here for six years (continuous).

·         Various other forms such as conditional structures and modal verbs such as may, might, could etc. which make more sense to look at in terms of other aspects of their meaning, but you can easily see how they can be used to refer to the future


Issues for Learners:

·         Overuse of will. This is by far the most common mistake made with future forms, and the most understandable. Consider how hard it is to learn all those different forms and the specifics of their meaning, and how tempting it is to just use will. This is compounded by the fact that many teachers and books will introduce will as a general form to refer to the future when learners are at too low a level to get into the specifics of going to, future continuous et al. Even when people get to a high level of English, they might still use will all the time because basically, it works. You can generally use will instead of any other form and still get your message across (except for, usually, the future continuous, e.g. At 8am tomorrow I’ll be driving to Dublin [the journey will be in progress) or At 8am tomorrow I’ll drive to Dublin [I’ll start my journey]). People might not know if you’re making a decision now or if you have an arrangement, but usually they don’t need to know, and they will know that you’re referring to the future. All these future forms are also particularly confusing for people whose language has only or two ways to refer to the future. Using just will feels more like using their own language.

·         Not using future forms at all: common for speakers of futureless languages like Dutch or German where you only need to indicate the future with time markers like tomorrow or next week. Even for speakers of future languages, it’s easier to just use the present simple than think of which future form to use.

·       Confusion about plans and intentions: usually when I ask students what the difference between will, going to, and the present continuous is, they say that will is for when you’re not sure about something, going to is when you’re sure, and the present continuous is just nonsense that I should stop asking them about. Which isn’t too different from what I think are the unconscious reasons mentioned above, but what’s happening here is that students are confusing the distinction between will (sure) and might (not sure) for that between will and going to. Which is understandable because it’s a logical distinction to make between future forms, but think about how strange it would be to say you’ll do something when you’re not sure you can (unless you’re lying). It’s an interesting example of the cognitive dissonance involved in learning a language. Students will say we use will when we’re not sure if something will happen, and seconds later use it to make a promise or refer to a future plan without seeing the contradiction. Not that this is restricted to learners, as the first time inexperienced teachers are faced with students saying will is used for uncertain situations, they’ll doubt their own knowledge of the word, despite knowing that’s not true. I think that’s partly the reason for the perpetuation of this error: new teachers are told this by students, immediately doubt themselves, and perhaps even tell the students that they’re right because it sounds kind of legit.

·         Not using contractions: a simple one. Students will say I am going to… or I will… instead of I’m going to… or I’ll… Understandable at lower levels, as they’ve just learned a new word and don’t want to immediately hide half of it. Even at higher levels it’s understandable because contractions are hard to hear when native speakers speak. What I always find strange though is the number of people who use contractions in writing but not speaking, even though they came about to make speech easier.

·         Existential crises brought on by the impossibility of truly knowing the future: this is my favourite! Every now and then, usually when teaching predictions, someone with a furrowed brow will blurt out: But how can you say we will have robot butlers in the future!? You can’t know for sure, so you have to say might or may!! Which seems logical to them, and perhaps to you. But then where do you draw the line, because how can we be sure about anything in the future? I might feel sure that tomorrow will be Saturday, but what if Donald Trump launches simultaneous nuclear strikes around the world tonight, announces himself Supreme Leader of Earth, and declares that Saturday from now on will be Trumpday? How can I be so sure that tomorrow will be Saturday? The answer of course is that I can’t really, just as I can’t really be sure that I’ll go to the cinema tonight even if I’ve bought my ticket. But at the same time, I’m not thinking about the fact that there might be a problem with the projector or my car might break down on the way. At some point, as long as we’re satisfied enough that there are no obvious obstacles in the way of some future event, we think of it as certain in our minds, and therefore use future forms accordingly in our speech or writing. Otherwise, we’d be plagued with uncertainty about the future, and unable to go on with our lives. And that’s something we do in basically every language. But when we learn a new language, it can feel abstract and unnatural, and we forget about these simple little shortcuts we take to make life liveable. When students have this problem, the best thing to do is to tell them to think about what they’d say in their own language.

I imagine that there’s a good chance that the ways we refer to the future seems more complex than you might have imagined (it did for me when I first learned all this). I think that makes sense though. The past present are fairly straightforward because they’re known to us. But the future is unknown, and could turn out many ways. We therefore use a whole host of different forms to refer to all these terrifying, exciting, boring, amazing possibilities.



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