How do I use future tenses in English?
21st June 2022
“I think the future tenses are difficult to learn in English”… well, yes I would agree. I can’t deny it is certainly one of the trickier areas of English to get your head around if you are an intermediate level learner and starting to delve a bit deeper into English grammar.
But let’s think about a few things. To start with, many students (and teachers!) mislabel this area of grammar as the future tenseS (plural). But hold on: there is only ONE future. “Great Scott!”, I hear you cry. Unless you own a DeLorean that time travels and you can try out multiple future scenarios for yourself, there is only ONE future time frame. But what we do in English is to express how to think about a future thought in different ways and here is where confusion can arise, especially if in your mother tongue some of the concepts don’t exist or it just works differently.
The tendency is to use WILL as the go to phrase to talk about anything that is occurring in at least one second from now. I will finish this blog post before lunch. I suppose the great thing about using will, and if the rest of the sentence is clear, you won’t cause too much confusion for your listener. But for those keen to make English work better for them as a communication tool, you may be missing some key stuff. So here goes…
Let’s use the word form, so future forms, rather than tenses. Remember for those of us without a DeLorean there is ONE future. But we have different ways of looking at the future. We do this by using four different structures:
If you see the future idea as something to go in your diary (mental, book or phone etc.)e.g meeting a friend, a dentist appointment, watching a TV programme later then use the present continuous:
I am meeting John later for coffee.
I am seeing the dentist at 3.00 this afternoon
I am watching the footie on TV in the evening.
If you are feeling bold and have made a decision about something (consciously or not) or you are telling the listener this is your intention, then use ‘going to’:
I am going to meet John later. I haven't seen him for ages and he wants to talk to me about some things.
I am going to make an appointment to the see the dentist; this tooth is hurting.
I am going to watch the footie later as it’s the Champions League final.
But also for when you are predicting a possible future event and you are actually LOOKING at this.
He is going to drop that heavy vase, if he isn’t more careful.
She is going to fall off that log. It looks very slippery.
And so now we come to WILL. Stop and think for a second about whether you would have used will in any of the above examples and consider how they communicate a different feeling to your listener. Here are the main uses of WILL:
- I’ll meet you later if I have time. This isn’t a fixed plan and often combined with if.
- I think/perhaps/maybe I’ll watch the footie later if there isn’t much else on. After think, perhaps and maybe we tend to use will as we aren’t sure.
- I’ll give you a lift to the station if you like. An offer of help to do something.
- Oh dear, I’ve forgotten my phone and wallet. I’ll have to borrow some money from you to buy the milk. The decision to borrow money is made as the person speaks.
- I’ll call the police if you don’t put that back! A threat.
- It’ll be the news on next. Existing knowledge - you know the news is on the TV at the same time every night.
- In 20 years from now everyone will be driving electric cars. Get your crystal ball out - this is for prediction
- I’ll do my homework later, mum. A promise to do something
- Next, the chopped vegetables will be put into the the tins and sealed. Often used when describing a process.
- She’ll often go for a swim after her run. Used to talk about a usual course of events.
- I WILL finish this marathon, even though I am feeling really rough. A strong conviction. WILL is used in its full form here and emphasised.
- You can ask me 100 times but I won’t go. I hate those kinds of events. Negative form of will to express refusal.
The present simple expresses timetabled events and schedules such as bus, plane and train arrivals and departures as well as concert, TV and film etc. start and end times.
The train leaves at 10.00, we’d better get a move on!
Eastenders starts in 5 minutes - turn the telly on!
In this final bit I am going to group together some other phrases which are used to express a view of the future. The context of the sentences will give you an understanding of their meanings.
I am just about to leave. My shoes are on so you’ll have to come here to speak to me. Don’t shout from the other room.
*The president is due to meet the Queen next week when he is to givea speech at a banquet. (*This is very formal and sounds like a BBC news item.)
He is sure to do well in his exams, he has studied so hard.
We are all set to leave. Haven’t you packed your bag yet?
We’d better hurry if we’re to catch the train in time.
The prime minister is very popular, so he is bound to get re-elected.
There's likely to be a big storm tonight. I can see the clouds coming over.
Tackling the climate crisis is certain to require a lot more positive action from countries around the globe.
My top tip: if you are about to use WILL in your sentence, just pause for a second and ask yourself whether one of the other future forms we have seen would do a better job. Well, that's me done. I'm going to have lunch now.