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Three more future forms (+ 1)

three future forms

Before we begin

If you haven't followed the guide to four future forms yet (or not for some time) you are advised to look at it before you read on (new tab).

This guide explains three tenses often taught to higher-level learners which are slightly less common ways to talk about particular aspects of the future.  If you are unsure about the distinction between aspect and tense, there's a guide on this site, linked below in the list of related guides
The other distinction to make sure you are clear about is the difference between stative and dynamic uses of verbs.  If you are unsure, there's a guide on this site also linked below
This guide also includes an explanation of a fourth common way to talk about the future which is rarely taught but easy to teach and learn:
    We are about to begin.


The future progressive

There are four uses:

  1. the future as 'a matter of course' 1
    The sentence
        They will be having dinner so don't call them now
    implies that the action will be happening in the natural course of things and your call would interrupt it.  The form doesn't always denote a progressive action but it usually does.  The best way to explain this is probably with the use of a time line such as
    This form is also used to refer to a continuous background state which may not actually be an event in progress at the time to which the speaker refers.
    For example:
        They'll be staying in a hotel for a while
    refers not to where the people in question currently are but to a background continuous situation ongoing from the present.
  2. the future as 'a matter of course' 2
    The second example
        She will be catching the train to work while her car's in the workshop
    does not imply a progressive action.  It implies a repeated future action because the verb in this sense cannot be seen as progressive; it is an instantaneous or momentary verb unlike, e.g., verbs such as work, read, study etc. which have a durative sense.
    A time line to show the concept might be
    It can also imply that this is a new arrangement rather than a one-off event and that fact is often signalled by an adverbial (a clause expressing reason in the example above) or a prepositional phrase as in, e.g.:
        She'll by working from the office upstairs from next Monday.
  3. A current speculation
    This is the modal use of the auxiliary verb will which refers to the speaker's view of whether an event is likely to be true.  It is, to use the technical term, and example of epistemic modality and does not refer to the future at all.  An example is:
        I expect she'll be sitting on the train to work
    The use of an introductory verb or clause such as I expect to increase or tone down the certainty shown is commonplace so we may also have:
        I suspect she'll be be sitting on the train to work
    Other modal auxiliary verbs and expressions may be added to the mix to signal very subtle shades of perceived likelihood as in, e.g.:
        She may / might well be / must / could be sitting on the train to work
    and so on.
    A time line for this will show that the present is included in the speculation, like this:
    but is also shows that the speaker is uncertain how long the state will persist.
  4. tact and diplomacy
    the form is often used to sound tentative and polite.  Compare:
    Will you come at 6? Will you be coming at 6?
    When will she install the new software? When will she be installing the new software?
    The left-hand examples can sound peremptory and even rude but the use of the progressive form softens the nature of the question and makes it sound much more polite.
    This is somewhat subtle so you'll need to set the context and role relationships clearly if you are teaching the use.  It does, however, follow a general rule that more complex forms often imply more distance or politeness.


The future perfect

Task 2: Make a note of what you understand the three different but closely connected uses of this tense are.  Click here when you have done that.

He'll have finished the book by the time I want it
He'll have repaired the car and then we can use it
I'll have been at the hotel for a day or two before I can call you


The future perfect progressive

Bear in mind that this form can only be used with verbs used in dynamic senses so is not normally available for verbs such as be, have, think, live etc. except where those verbs have dynamic senses.  See the guide to stative and dynamic verb uses, linked below, for more.

Task 3: Again, can you work out what the three uses are (they are closely connected to the uses of the future perfect simple)?  Click here when you have an answer.

I will have been working for over two hours before you get here
He'll have been travelling for ten hours and will be tired
We'll have been coming to this hotel for 15 years soon

There is one very obvious difficulty with the two perfect aspect future tenses: the verb forms do not match the time to which they refer.  If we take, for example:
    I will have finished it by the time you need it
we can see that the first verb phrase, will have finished, is clearly a future form of some sort but the second verb phrase is simply need and that looks like a present form.  It is logical to assume that it should be will need and that is what many learners are tempted to say.  Many languages do signal the time in this way and in that sense are more logically and intuitively constructed.
This happens to be the way that tense forms work in dependent clauses in English and is a source of a great deal of error.
There is a guide on the site to tenses in dependent clauses that you can access here (new tab).

A second, even more serious, problem is that many languages do not have a perfect or a progressive aspect which parallels how English deals with signalling events embedded in other events (the perfect) or events which remain in the background, are progressing or repeated (the progressive).
Learning to handle the two aspects in English means, therefore, for many learners learning as new and unfamiliar way of conceptualising events in time.
Time lines a constant concept checking are both needed.

time line

Time lines

As with many tense forms, the simplest way to present and help people to understand is via the use of clear time lines.
We used some simple time lines above to show the separate uses of these forms but they can, with a little preparation be made more elaborate (and therefore clearer).
Here are some examples for future perfect forms.

time line example

time line example

In all cases, the time line must show the speakers point of view or the meaning will not be clear.


Avoidance and dialect

Many native speakers of English, especially those using a North American dialect rather than a British dialect, tend to avoid the use of the future perfect forms so, instead of:
    When will she have finished the work?
    They will have arrived by six
    I won't have done it by then
we may encounter either:
    When will she be through with the work?
    When will the work be finished?
    They will be here by six
    I won't be done by then

This is not a sound reason for avoiding teaching the forms but it should give some pause for thought in terms of how actively we want learners to use the forms. 


be about to

This is the form used for imminent or nearly imminent futures.  Unlike many forms, it carries no speaker perceptions other than

  1. it is going to happen very soon (The bomb's about to go off)
  2. it is almost certain to occur (I'm about to leave, I'm afraid, so I can't talk now)

The form carries no implications of, e.g., speaker intention (see a.) and does not denote futures based on present evidence (see b.).  The form is very simple to teach and learn and more common than you may think.  (Other forms such as be bound to, be certain to, be liable to, be likely to etc. do carry modal meanings expressing the speaker's point of view (certainty, characteristic behaviour, likelihood etc.).

The form is frequently used in the past to denote a thwarted or failed intention as in, e.g.:
    I was about to leave when the phone rang
    She was about to start university when she got ill

(An allied form, often seen as more formal, appears in, for example:
    I was on the point of leaving when the telephone rang
which happens to be a direct translation of the standard form in, for example, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian and also translates very closely in Dutch.)

Related guides
four future forms which considers the simpler future tense forms
the tenses map for the clickable diagram of all English tenses
the tenses index for the index of all tense-related guides
aspect and tense to disentangle the concepts
stative vs. dynamic to disentangle two more concepts
using time lines for some more ideas
speaking about the future for a more technical guide to the area
time, tense and aspect for a guide to all the tense areas of English