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Concourse 2

Four future forms

four eggs

Depression is the inability to construct a future.
Rollo May, existential psychologist (1909-1994)

May was not referring to constructing future forms in English but the effect is often surprisingly similar.


A note on language differences

English is slightly peculiar.
You knew that but the reference here is to the fact that there is no obvious future tense in English.  English is not alone in this.
Some languages, such as Greek, Mandarin, Hebrew and so on, have ways of referring to the future which don't demand a change to the verb form but rely on context and co-text to make the meaning clear.
Greek uses a little particle (tha), Mandarin relies mostly on adverbials such as tomorrow, next week etc. and Hebrew verbs are very different indeed.  Many Germanic and Scandinavian languages have ways of making the future (often employing the verb to go or to become) but also habitually use the present tense with an adverb marker to talk about the future (e.g., I go tomorrow).  These languages are similar to English in having no inflected tense form to denote future reference.
Romance languages, like French, Spanish and Portuguese do rely on changes to the verb and therefore have real future tenses so we get, for example, the French aimerai and the Spanish amaré (both meaning I will love).
Knowing how your students' first languages work is very helpful when you are teaching in this area.

Technically speaking, in order to qualify as a tense a verb needs to be inflected to show the time reference.  In that respect, English has no future tense, and nor do many other languages.
That is not to say, however, that for all intents and purposes a statement such as
    I will be 62 tomorrow
is not a future tense form.  It is; just not technically so.  Learners are rarely interested in technical differences and will be quite happy to look upon the form as a future tense.  Why shouldn't they?

think Task 1: think of the four most common ways English uses to talk about the future.  Click here when you have a list.

The first thing to note is that these are modal auxiliary verbs as well as markers for future time and it's sometimes almost impossible to separate the functions.  If you have read through some of the guides to modal auxiliary verbs, you will be aware that one of will's main functions expresses intention as in
    I'll write as often as I can
Is that a statement about the future or a statement of intention (a promise)?  The answer will depend on the context but in both cases will refers to now.

The second thing to note is that learners often use this as the default choice.  There are two reasons:
    a) it is the form they first encountered for the future
    b) it is the form most clearly identifiable as a tense and a natural choice for people from many language backgrounds

will or shall?
Traditionally, shall for the future is restricted to the 1st person singular and plural:
    I shall see him
    We shall arrive late
In modern English, the forms are very restricted, arguably to formal use in Southern British English only.  It may be important for learners studying or living in that setting to know the form but it will rarely be heard elsewhere.  However, questions such as:
    What shall we do today?
    Where shall I put this?
and the question tags
    shall I?
    shall we?
are still very common and all learners need to be aware of the interrogative uses.

think Task 2: please stop now and consider these sentences which all contain this form.  How would you explain the differences?  Click here when you have an answer.
The Grand National will be run on Saturday.
I'll never get him to spend the money.
I'll write to find out so you don't need to.
That'll be our neighbours' dog you can hear.
I'm going to see the dentist.
I'm seeing the dentist tomorrow.
It's going to be cold.
When they arrive tomorrow John is bringing them home.
The flight leaves at 7.
I am 65 next April.


the present progressive

taking the stairs

This form denotes a present anticipation of a future based on an arrangement, a programme of events or a plan.  Some typical examples are:
    I'm leaving on Sunday
my travel plans are booked and arranged
    You are teaching in room 5
that's the timetabled programme for the day
    I'm having lunch with the boss tomorrow
it's arranged and in the diaries
    John is bringing them home
he's agreed and committed himself
Two things to note:

  1. Because the same form is used to refer to the present, it is often necessary to make the time apparent by inserting some kind of marker such as tomorrow, when I've finished this, later etc.
  2. This form is very commonly used with dynamic verb uses such as arrive, go, take off, drive, play, take etc. and far less frequently used with state verbs such as hope, expect, enjoy, live etc.  In fact, it's hard to imagine
        I am living in England
    referring to anything except present time or
        I am arriving
    referring to anything except future time (leaving on-the-train mobile calls aside).
    The use is especially common with causative expressions such as
        I am having my hair done
        I am getting the house painted
    probably because such events clearly depend on arrangements between suppliers and clients.

Warning: there is considerable overlap between the progressive and the going to formulation.  In many cases, the forms can be used interchangeably with going to referring to arrangements in particular in, e.g.:
    We decided I'm going to cook this evening.
Note, too the famous song lyric with its reference to having tickets and a reservation.
    Gonna take a sentimental journey
    Gonna set my heart at ease
    Gonna make a sentimental journey
    To renew old memories

    I got my bag, I got my reservation
    Spent each dime I could afford
    Like a child in wild anticipation
    I long to hear that: "all aboard!"

(By the way, spelling going to as gonna is an example of what is called metaplasm.)

For more on the times when the forms are not interchangeable see the guide to talking about present time, linked below.  The discussion occurs there because the forms are both present tenses related to future events.


the present simple

the flight leaves at 06:25
  1. Timetabled events.  This is often the only type taught and it refers to events such as
        The train arrives at 6:20
        The flight leaves at 7
    but there are actually two more discrete uses:
  2. Following subordinate clauses.  Two types of clauses are important:
    1. conditional clauses which are introduced by words like providing, unless, if etc.
          if he comes tomorrow
          Unless we miss the train
          Providing the flight arrives on time
    2. time clauses which are introduced by words such as when, whenever, until, as soon as, before etc.
          before you leave
          as soon as they arrive
          when they arrive
  3. When an event is of unusual certainty:
        night follows day
        tomorrow is Wednesday
        when is the eclipse?
        I am 65 next April

There is a guide to teaching these 4 future forms in the in-service training section of this site, linked below.  It assumes knowledge of the above.

Take the test.

Related guides
teaching the four forms for the guide in the in-service section of the site
the tenses map for the clickable diagram of all English tenses
the tenses index for the index to all tense-related guides
Other tense forms
present forms for the guide to talking and writing about the present
four more future forms for consideration of a range of alternative future formulations
past forms for consideration of a ways of talking and writing about the past
past perfect for a guide to this area alone
present perfect for a guide to a troublesome form
tenses and aspects for the index to the whole area