Future Time in English

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No "Future Tense" But Lots of "Future Time" Choices

Although English does not have a simple verb form for "future time" that corresponds to the simple present tense and the simple past tense, we have many different ways to talk about future time.  Or, better, we can talk about the future in many different ways.  Like the old example that claims that Native Peoples in Canada and Alaska have many different words for "snow"--or words for many different types of "snow"--English has many different ways to talk about different aspects of future time. 

I'm belaboring this point because I think it is important to realize that all of these ways of talking about the future are not just synonyms for each other.  You can't always substitute one for another and maintain the same meaning. 

Here are the future time uses of a variety of verb forms:

will includes a meaning of "future certainty" and "promise"
shall in the U.S. mostly used for ritualized communication and sayings: We shall overcome.  I shall return.  And in introductions in textbooks about what will be included--In chapter 3, we shall do xyz.  Or, someone can say something like Shall we begin? or some other polite command.
be going to + verb refers to a future action or event or state that grows out of current plans or current causes--notice that the pronunciation for "going to" is something like "gonna"--in all types of U.S. English except for formal speaking, of course.  What're you going to take next semester? 
present progressive This verb form that is commonly used for things happening in present time can also be used for future time.  Context is all!  Notice the use of the future time adverbials in the examples.
simple present  Used in 2 ways. 

First, for a scheduled event: The new store opens tomorrow morning. 

Second, in a subordinate clause when the main clause has a future time meaning and structure. 

After he studies Spanish, he will take a trip to Mexico. 
Because she loves warm weather, she's going to move to Florida.
modal + progressive As in He will be studying sociology next summer. However, all of the modals can be used for various senses of certainty as in She might be visiting Mexico over the break.
be (about) to the be (about) to + verb version is used for future requirements--and has an official feel to it--something about the implementation of a rule or a necessity

the be about to+ verb version means that something is planned for the near future

be fixing to in the Southern U.S., this expression refers to something in the very very very near future--immediately--at once.  If you ask a Southerner to do something, and the reply is "I'm fixing to."  That means "right now."  It's not a delaying tactic but an expression of immediate intent
future time in the past The idea is that the central time is the past--like in a biography or autobiography or history text or novel.  Then, the writer talks about something in the future--out in front of that central past time.  While Franklin Roosevelt was not a serious student, he was destined to become a major agent for change in U.S. national and international policy. He was to change ideas about U.S. structure and status fundamentally.
modal + perfect In this use, we look ahead to a future time and say that something will be completed at that future time point. You will have read most of the Longman Student Grammar by the end of the semester. Generally, these statements are made with will but other modals can be used for statements of a weaker level of certainty.  You might have enjoyed some of the reading!

 In the 2nd edition of their Grammar Book, Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman provide additional information about the contrasts among these various forms (see pages 126-128):  
will future predictions: John will take a sociology course next semester.

"spontaneous decision when the person has control over the action":  The phone rings and a person says: I'll get the phone. Or, I'll answer. Or, I'll get it.

be going to + verb future predictions in a less formal style than with will: John's going to take a sociology course next semester.

future intentions based on previous plans and decisions: John is going to teach in Mexico when he gets his master's degree.

future certainty based on current condition or present evidence: It's going to be cold this afternoon.

present progressive future plans that have already been made

I'm leaving for school at 1 pm.

She's going to Venezuela this spring.

simple present  Used in 2 ways. 

First, for a scheduled event: The new store opens tomorrow morning. 

Second, in a subordinate clause when the main clause has a future time meaning and structure. 

After he studies Spanish, he will take a trip to Mexico. 
Because she loves warm weather, she's going to move to Florida.
simple present vs. present progressive for future time meaning very much alike but the simple present is more formal and impersonal--often used for travel arrangements and fixed timetables
present progressive vs. be going to present progressive emphasizes that plans have already been made while be going to focuses on the speaker's plans or intentions.  Notice this interesting example that they give:
Where're are you staying at TESOL? 

(a) I'm staying at the Marriott.

(b) I'm going to stay at the Marriott.

These examples need more context, but the idea is that (a) describes plans that have been made while (b) is about the speaker and her/his intentions.
They remind us that stative verbs not used with the present progressive and that's true for the future time meanings as well as the present time meanings--so be going to is used--or another form As you would expect, the present progressive is used with action verbs rather than stative verbs:
Getting a new car is the setting for their examples:

*The red car is belonging to me tomorrow."

The red car is going to belong to me tomorrow.

The red car will belong to me tomorrow.

will vs. be going to They say:  "Will and be going to are sometimes interchangeable when be going to expresses the speaker's certainty and will is used to make a strong prediction.  However since be going to is a present-tense form, it is used especially when there is evidence in the present to support the prediction; this is not necessarily the case with will."

And they--that is, these two forms differ--also differ in that will is used for quick, 'on-the-spot' decisions, whereas be going to is used with more premeditated ones.

What can I give Jill for her birthday? 

Oh, I know.  I'll get her that new novel.

*Oh, I know. I'm going to get her that new novel." 


Teaching Issues

How are we to teach students to use these forms accurately and fluently?  As complete as they are, the charts of forms don't help us a great deal in the preparation of teaching materials because they don't tell us anything much about the contexts in which the forms are used.  Well, I know that the fixing to form is used by Southerners in conversation to promise immediate action. That doesn't seem like an area that we would want to work with much for ESL students--unless they live in the South and have questions about the form. And the "on-the-spot quick decision" use of will can be contextualized pretty easily.  But, when are the other forms used--in what settings? for what kinds of communication?  by what kinds of speakers? How do we write materials?  Where do we find authentic examples?

In a dissertation (Suh, 1992) discussed in the Grammar Book, samples of oral communication are studied--little narratives of various sorts.  The study shows that we used some verbs to set up or frame a narrative and then other verbs to give the details.  For example, in the data studied for future time narratives, be going to is used to frame the narrative and the details are given with will.  Look closely at the passage reprinted  by Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman from the Suh dissertation:

Be going to vs. Will in Narratives
from the White House Transcripts (1974)
John Dean is speaking

I think what is going to happen on the civil case is that the judge is going to dismiss the complaint that is down there right now.  They will then file a new complaint which will come back to Ritchie again.  That will probably happen the 20th, 21st, 22nd.  Then 20 days will run before any answers have to be filed and the depositions will be commenced.  So we are eating up an awful lot of time.

Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman suggest setting up shorter frames of 1 or 2 sentences that even students at lower proficiency levels can understand and use as models.  Their models have be going to set up the story and then can or will in the details.

Patrick O'Brien is going to marry his American girlfriend so he can get a green card.

I'm going to study in Spain for a year next year so I'll be fluent in Spanish.

Indeed, when do we communicate about future time at all? These samples from the Grammar Book show one type of future time narrative in which a person explains what will take place over a period of time in the future.  I can imagine that lawyers and doctors--and academic advisors?--use this pattern quite a lot. We need to be on the look out for other authentic samples like the one with John Dean.

In trying to collect authentic written examples of future time writing, I found very few samples that were entirely focused on the future.  Most of those were written around the first of the year--in the late fall as predictions start to be published about the upcoming year.  On the other hand, I found that future time references come at the ends of articles and book chapters and student essays in a strategy for bringing the piece of writing to a close by making predictions about what happens next.  Clearly we also talk a lot about future events--what's happening after class, before dinner, next weekend.  I've noticed this week that some television programs end with future time statements about what to expect on the next iteration of the show. 

My point: we need to find the contexts where future time is used and to work from those contexts to provide our students with materials that show them how the future time verbs are used and then give them opportunities to learn to make such use in their own communication.

Based on these ideas, how would you write materials and lessons to help students learn to use the forms in that chart back at the beginning of this lecture? 

Please email me your questions or comments.


Biber, D., Conrad, S., and Reppen, R. (1998).  Corpus linguistics: Investigating language structure and use.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Celce-Murcia, M. and Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). 2nd Ed. The grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher's course.  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Suh, K. H. (1992). A discourse analysis of the English tense-aspect-modality system.  Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Applied Linguistics, University of California Los Angeles.