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Concourse 2

Talking about future time


If you have arrived here in expectation of encountering either the going to formulation, as in
    I am going to see the movie
or the present tense used for the future, as in, e.g.:
    I am taking Mary to the cinema tomorrow
you will not be wholly disappointed but both those forms are also discussed under present time because that is where they arguably belong.

English uses a number of strategies to apply aspect to future time.  Unfortunately, it also employs a lot of modality and pseudo-modality so that will be considered here first before we get along to aspect.


Uncertainty and modality

Modality occurs primarily because the future is, by definition, uncertain.
If we are certain of something, present tenses are commonly used as in, for example, in answer to
    Where's John?
the response is:
    He's in his room.
then the speaker is demonstrating certainty about a current situation.
If, on the other hand, the response is:
    He'll be in his room.
then, although the speaker is expressing that she is almost certain of the truth of what she says, there is an implication that John may, in fact, not be in his room.  In fact, responses like these are very often softened with the addition of a comment clause such as I expect.
The fact that will can express this near-but-not-absolute certainty explains much of its use as an auxiliary verb to refer to the future.

Other modal auxiliary verbs can also express varying levels of certainty, especially if they are stressed or otherwise marked for importance (writing conventions such as underlining, hand gestures etc.).
There is, in fact a cline from the simple statement of fact to the expression of a good deal of uncertainty in an answer to
    Where's John?
which can be arranged in ascending order of certainty, like this:
and if we add other modifications such as
    ... I think
    ... I imagine
    ... I reckon
    ... I expect
    ... I'm sure
    ... for sure
    ... certainly ...
    ... I assume

and so on, the subtleties multiply.

When we are using modality to express futurity rather than current likelihood similar considerations apply.  So for example:

It is, in other words, almost impossible to disentangle concepts of futurity from modality, particularly epistemic modality which refers to the speaker's view of the truth or likelihood of truth of a proposition.  But we'll try.

We should not, incidentally, be at all surprised that the future in English is often expressed via a modal auxiliary verb.  It can be argued that modal auxiliary verbs are, so to speak, tensed insofar as they frequently refer to the future without any marking to show the tense.  That's why, for example all the following can refer to the future:
    She could come here
    They may be leaving
    I might ask a question
    I must be there
    I can see her
    We ought to go
    I have to work

and so on.
Into all those sentences we can insert a simple time adverbial, such as tomorrow, later, soon etc. and the sentences immediately and unequivocally refer to future time.  The modal auxiliary will is no different in this respect.


will (and shall)

Will you marry me?

The simple auxiliary verb will causes serious problems for learners and some of them are traceable to the fact that the verb is polysemous and used in two main allied but different meanings in English.  Once they are distinguished, much becomes clearer.


A little history

The word will derives from the Old English wyllan which meant, among other things, wish, desire, be willing to.
It also meant be about to and it is probably thence we derive its use as a future time marker.
The past tense was wolde (now would), incidentally.
There are cognate words in most Germanic languages, e.g., wollen in German which means wish or want (to) and is not a future tense marker (that's werden, which also, confusingly, means become).  The first-person singular form of the verb in German is will.  Other Germanic language such as Dutch (ik wil), Danish (jeg vil), Swedish (jag vill) etc.

The problems arise when learners assume (or, unforgivably, are told) it is only a future form marker in English whereas it is, in fact, commonly a signal of willingness or volition rather than futurity.  (A further small complication is that there is a transitive verb in English, to will, which means something like to bring about by exercise of willpower and another which refers to leaving things to other people).
Some examples may help.

Example Comment Use of will
Will you marry me? does not require the responder to speculate about future events.  The verb is not being used to denote future time at all.  It denotes something like Are you willing to ... and that's a very different thing.  The question is about the present not the future.
A common use of this verb in this way is to make a polite request as in, e.g.:
    Will you have another?
Are you going to marry me? is enquiring about current plans and that is not mostly about the future.  It is primarily about current intention. volition allied to futurity
Will she marry him? denotes either:
    Do you think the future will contain her marrying him?
(please speculate about the future)
    Do you think she is willing to marry him?
(please speculate about her present state of mind)
futurity or volition
What will he do if she won't marry him? Usually, we are told that the so-called first conditional only contains one instance of will.  That's correct when the verb is used with reference to future time.  However, in this case she won't marry him refers to volition not futurity so two instances of will are allowable.  Compare it to
    What will he do if she doesn't marry him?
which clearly has reference to the future and only one instance of will is needed.
volition and futurity

The two meanings are not always easily separable.  For example:


The problem in the middle lies with the intention of the speaker.  It may be a prediction about the future based on sound evidence, it may, less usually, be a spontaneous decision or it may, as is more common, be an expression of willingness or a commitment:

A: Can we talk about this? This refers to right now.
B: I can't now.  I'll talk to you tomorrow, if you like. And so does this.  The speaker is expressing a current inability and a current willingness.
A: OK.  I'll try to come in early.  Goodnight. And this.  The speaker is expressing a current willingness, or promising.
B: Goodnight.  We'll talk tomorrow. Now the speaker is referring the future per se and not willingness but certainty.  If the speaker had said:
    I expect we'll talk tomorrow
then the sense of likelihood is diminished as it would be with other modal auxiliary verbs such as may, might, could etc.

The distinction is important because the intrinsic meaning of an expression of willingness (which is a present reference) has to be separated from the extrinsic meaning of inevitability concerning future events (which is a proper future reference).
There is, rather obviously, some sense of reference to the future in something like I'll do the cooking this evening but the key here is to understand that the speaker is referring primarily to present volition (i.e., volunteering or committing) rather than the future event which may, or may not, actually occur.
Like this:

Utterance Meaning
I'm on the train and I'll be in London by six.

This expresses an inevitable, timetabled future.  The speakers willingness or intentions are simply not relevant.

If you will get that in the post, it will be there tomorrow. Two separate uses:
willingness: the first is a request and refers to what someone is prepared to do now
prediction: the second is a prediction about the efficiency of the postal delivery in the future
It'll be cold in Canada at this time of year. This is a simple prediction based on climatic knowledge and has nothing to do with anyone's wishes or disposition.  It is a true future form.  This cannot be said if the speaker and the hearer are currently in Canada.
The going to formulation can also be used, more rarely, to express this meaning but the be + -ing form cannot.  We can have:
    It's going to be cold in Canada at this time of year
but not:
    It is being cold in Canada at this time of year
Even in this use, the speaker can use will to refer to the present and stating a fact.  It is akin to hearing the telephone ring and stating
    That'll be your mother.
This is reference to now.
Stop that! I won't tell you again This is also an expression of current willingness (negatively).  It may, obliquely, refer to the future but the speaker's intention is to express a current emotional state.

Naturally, because we more rarely make commitments for other people, the volitional aspect of the auxiliary verb is most evident in the first person so expressions such as:
    I'll do the work
    I won't help you
    We'll be happy to come
are most likely to be interpreted as expressing willingness (or its lack) rather than referring solely to the future.
Negative volition can be used in other persons more frequently so we get, e.g.:
    Won't she help? (=Is she unwilling to help?)
    They won't come to work (=They are unwilling to come to work)
and neither of those are about the future.  The reference is to their current volitional state of mind.

By the same token,
    You'll be pleased to see them
    You'll do most of the work

    You'll walk there, I guess
are most likely to be interpreted as proper future references or predictions because we do not conventionally control other people's willingness.  The addition of a comment clause, as in the last example with I guess reinforces the nature of the statement as a prediction, not an expression of willingness.

That is, however, not always the case because we do sometimes delegate to a third person or command the second person so, for example:
    My secretary will do the work
can be interpreted both ways, as an expression of my secretary's willingness or ability to do the work (volition) or as a prediction concerning who will do the work.
    You will not do that again!
can be interpreted as volition (on my part) forbidding you to do it again or as a prediction concerning your behaviour.

Slightly more technically, the distinction between the central meanings of will can be understood as distinct forms of modality:


The failure to distinguish

The problem is that not distinguishing between the meanings of will results in error – teacher-induced error.  Most course materials (and hundreds of websites) assert that the use of will to express a disposition or promise to do something is a simple future form, often dressed up as something called spontaneous decision or a similarly silly expression.  It is not.  It is about one's current (i.e., present) state of mind.  Worse, the error in many materials is to slide from the volitional use of the verb to a future form of will to an expression of current plans and the use of going to.

Take a simple and often-used telephone dialogue such as:

A: I don't think there's any wine in the house.
B: Isn't there?  Oh, I'll go and get some.

Students are asked to believe that the second speaker's statement refers to the future and is an example of a spontaneous decision.  It doesn't and isn't – it refers to the speaker's current willingness or a promise to do something.  It may result in a future action but that is not the point at all.  This is a commitment and, as we saw above, is a deontic modal use called commissive modality (because the speaker is committing to an action).
If the conversation develops like this:

A: Don't bother, I'll get some on the way home.
B: Will you have time?

Then students realise that the future isn't going to happen.  It wasn't a future use, anyway.
They are now faced with two completely different uses of will.  The first expresses volunteering (now) and the second is a question that really is about the future.  You can easily see that:
    Will you have time?
has nothing to do with willingness because none of us can control time, however willing we are.
On the other hand,
    Will you make time?
actually does refer to willingness because we all labour under the impression that we can do such a thing.
And it gets worse if the dialogue goes on something like:

A: Yes, no problem.  I'm going to leave a bit early so I'll be there before they shut.
B: Fine.  I expect John'll bring a bottle, too.

in which we now have an expression of a present plan, a prediction about travel times and another prediction about the future based on the speaker's knowledge of John's character and habits.


This gets even worse

If the materials do not alert learners to the types of verbal processes which are associated with the modal use of will, then they induce errors of comprehension and appropriacy.
For example, a dialogue such as:

A: I expect she'll be here soon.
B: Will she bring the papers with her?
A: I hope she will
B: Will you clear the desk for her?

contains three different uses of the auxiliary verb

  1.     I expect she'll be here soon
        I hope she will
    express epistemic modality concerning the truth of a proposition.  We saw above that this use is very common with mental process verbs such as think, believe, feel sure, hope etc.  That is the use in A's first and second statements.  The use of a comment clause (with expect and hope) concerns the level of certainty the speaker feels.
  2.     Will she bring the paper with her?
    refers to a real future: B's response is clearly concerned with future time and is asking for A's prediction.
  3.     Will you clear the desk for her?
    is an unconnected use.  It is a request for action on A's part (and the form is also often used for invitation) and has nothing to do with futurity or likelihood.  It concerns dynamic modality and refers to A's willingness to do something or make a commitment.

It is little wonder that learners get confused if the uses and meanings are jumbled up like this.


A simple way to understand will

A straightforward way to understand the difference between will as a modal auxiliary and will as a tense-forming auxiliary is to compare it to the verb have.
For example, in:
    I have seen the boss
the verb have is acting as a primary auxiliary, forming a perfect tense of the verb see.  No problem, but in:
    I have to see my boss
the verb is clearly a modal auxiliary and expresses a sense of obligation (deontic modality, technically).

The verb will can be analysed in the same way.  So, in:
    The train will arrive at platform 6
we have an example of will acting to form a tense and it can be considered a primary auxiliary verb but in:
    I will marry you if you will give up drinking
the verb is modal insofar as it denotes the speaker's current willingness and that is the job of modal auxiliary verbs.


shall is obsolete, right?

A further source of teacher-induced error is the assumption that it is not necessary to deal with shall at all because will has taken over and the verb has fallen / is falling into disuse.  That's not a bad rule of thumb but it is worth noticing some issues.

derivation and meaning
the verb shall is derived from a different source from will.  The base sense is actually connected to the idea of obligation and cognate verbs in other languages retain the sense of shall as should or ought to.  Compare sollen in German, for example.  The use to speak about the future is comparatively recent and comparatively rare.
the verb shall displays the same polysemy as will and can carry the sense of pure prediction, e.g.,
    I shall be in New York at 8 if the plane's on time
and volition:
    Shall I help you with that?
The use in questions, which is still quite common, is almost always to do with disposition, readiness or willingness and carries no future predictive sense:
    Where shall we go?  (= Where do we want [now] to go?)
    I shan't! (= I refuse [now])
    Where shall I put this? (= Where do you want me [now] to put this?)
the verb retains its sense of obligation in often legalese statements like
    The property owner shall ensure ...
etc. and also in
    They shan't talk to me like that.
In this sense, the verb usually has nothing to do with the future.  It expresses obligation and obligation routinely refers to both present and future time.  Compare, e.g.,
    We mustn't be late
which can refer to present time or the future depending on context.
There is a formal use for all persons of shall in, e.g.
    You shall not interrupt
    They shall not pass
commissive modality
a rarer (and rarely taught) use of shall is in what is known as commissive modality in which the speaker / writer creates a self-imposed duty (so it is a sub-category of deontic modality).  In BrE, this is often realised through the use of shall in expressions such as:
    You shall have the money by Thursday
although in spoken language the contracted form ('ll) disguises the use of shall and many believe it is a use of will.  The modal auxiliary verb will is often used in this way but also expresses volition or willingness:
    I'll give you money on Thursday


Alternative modal auxiliary verbs

There are separate guides on this site to all the modal auxiliary verbs and semi-modal auxiliary verbs (new tab) in English so this is not a place to repeat what's said there.
We use a range of modal auxiliaries to replace will but only when the use really is about the future.  We do not replace the use of will to express volition, willingness or promises with other modal auxiliary verbs, except shall and would:

I'll be in London by six. Could be replaced with, e.g.
    I may be in London by six.
    I might be in London by six.
    I should be in London by six.
    I ought to be in London by six.
because the sense is of a more-or-less certain future.
However, as was stated above, the verb will carries much stronger epistemic modality (i.e., certainty) than the other modal auxiliary verbs do.
I'll buy some wine, if you like. Because this is the use of will to express willingness, we can't have:
    *I may buy some wine, if you like.
    *I might buy some wine, if you like.
    *I should buy some wine, if you like.
    *I ought to buy some wine, if you like.
but we can replace the verb in this meaning with other expressions which refer explicitly to willingness such as:
    I am happy to buy some wine
    I am willing to buy some wine
    I volunteer to buy some wine
    Please leave buying the wine to me


This is more evidence that we should keep the meanings quite separate when we are teaching.  Not to do so will confuse and bewilder.


Hope and expectation

When will is used to refer to the future rather than to volition, it is frequently preceded by a verb or phrase denoting some kind of hope or expectation, for example,

These are all indicators that the verb is really being used to refer to future time and not to volition.  In fact, the situation may be and often is wholly outside the control of the speaker.
Other verbal indicators of this sort were listed above and included:
    be afraid
    feel certain
    doubt (if)
    be sure

all of which are mental verbal processes occurring conventionally in comment clauses about the future.

These introductory expressions always refer to the speaker's view of the likelihood of the future event or state.  If will concerns volition or making promises (much the same thing), the expressions change the sense to pure futurity:

Comment on the present Volition, promises and willingness Future reference and prediction
You are late again! I'm sorry, it won't happen again. I'm sorry, I'm sure it won't happen again.
We've run out of sugar. I'll borrow some from next door. *?I hope I'll borrow some from next door.

Note that in the second exchange, the reference to prediction sounds at best very strange, at worst wrong, because the verb is being used to express willingness and cannot easily be dragooned into a future reference.  It could be changed to:
    I hope I'll be able to borrow some from next door
which refers to an uncertain future ability.


Absolute future forms

There is an unusual but quite simple form in English which does unequivocally refer to the future either seen from now or in the past and unfulfilled.  Here are some examples:
    There is to be a meeting tomorrow
    There was to be a meeting the next day but too many people were off work
    We are to meet again after lunch

    I was to have painted the house but ran out of time and money
The form refers either to a firm arrangement already made or to one made and then unfulfilled for a reason (which is conventionally supplied).

An allied form, discussed in the guide to the infinitive is the sense of absolute prohibition or obligation contained in notices and commands from those in authority such as:
    Children are not to leave the premises unaccompanied
    Passengers are not to proceed beyond this point
    Officers are to be in uniform at all time
    Desks are to be kept tidy
    This door is to be kept clear of obstructions
and none refers to futurity.  All of these express strong deontic modality concerning current externally imposed obligations.  The forms cannot be used for commissive modality because even:
    I am to keep my desk tidy
does not represent the speaker's commitment to do something but the strength of an imposed obligation.


Summary and classroom issues

This matters in the classroom.

will shall summary

If learners are encouraged to believe that will is merely a future marker, do not be surprised if they produce errors and sound certain or tentative about the future rather than willing to do something.  There is a clear difference between:
    I'm sure it won't happen again.
which refers to the speakers current certainty about the future, and
    I'm sorry.  It won't happen again.
which refers to a current promise or undertaking
and between
    I ought to be there at six.
which can refer to an obligation (a duty to be there) or an unsure expectation concerning the future, and
    I'll be there at six.  Promise.
which refers to a promise or commitment (hence the term commissive modality to refer to this).

The other teaching aspect to focus on is the type of verbal processes which are involved in the main uses of the auxiliary verb.

When we are talking about likelihood
the most frequent verbal processes are mental so we get
    I expect it'll be OK
    I feel sure she'll be late

When we are talking about volition or willingness
the most common verbal processes are behavioural
    I won't tell you again
    She won't drive at night


Focusing on verbal process types can be very helpful.



Now that we have dispensed with will to express present volition, we can focus on its use for the future in terms of adding aspect.
(In none of what follows does will express volition and that is another reason for keeping the concepts separate.)



The next train arrives in 3 minutes

Using a simple form like this to refer to the future is, slightly misleadingly, called the 'timetabled' future.  It might be better described as the certain future because it is closely allied to the use of a simple present tense to refer to predictable facts as in, e.g.
    It snows heavily in The Alps in winter
Of course, the form includes timetables but it also covers events that we are sure of because they are tied to other ever-present background events.  Snow, in common with other weather events, cannot be timetabled.
For example:

In both cases above, the simple tense can be replaced with a will formulation, either in simple or progressive aspects (will arrive / will be arriving) with no change in meaning.  No other modal, except the first-person shall, can be used without changing the meaning.

The reverse does not usually apply: we cannot always insert a simple tense form instead of a formulation with will / shall.  The following are not acceptable transformations:
    I'll talk to you tomorrow ≠ *I talk to you tomorrow
because the reference is to willingness, not futurity.
    She'll be here later ≠ *She is here later
because the reference is to modality concerning likely, not absolutely certain, futurity.
The following are acceptable transformations because they do concern certainty futurity:
    The train will arrive in a minute = The train arrives in a minute
    The boss will get here soon = The boss gets here soon

because the sense of pure futurity is maintained in both formulations.


Will vs. going to

It's going to be a lovely day
It'll be hot, though

The marginal modal auxiliary verb going to is analysed on this site as a present tense with future aspect because it is most often used that way to state that there is present evidence for a future event, as in:
    I think it's going to rain
or present intent for a future action, as in:
    I'm going to talk to the boss.

In some analyses, however, it makes sense to include going to as a future form because it concerns prediction based not on what one perceives now (such as rain clouds) or on what one intends now but on prediction substantiated.
For example, in:
    She's going to be furious when she finds out
a speaker is making a prediction based not on present intention or present evidence but on what she / he knows about the person in question.  That can, of course, also be interpreted as present evidence because the speaker's knowledge of the subject is current.

In this analysis, there are two forms of prediction: substantiated and unsubstantiated.
Substantiated prediction involves the use of going to and unsubstantiated prediction involves the use of will so, the theory goes, we have a contrast between:
    He'll be at home this evening
    He's going to be at home this evening
and the assertion is that the former is unsubstantiated and the latter substantiated by current knowledge of the situation.
Unfortunately, neat though the concept seems, it doesn't always work because:

  1. We often use will for prediction based on current substantiated facts so we get, for example:
        I'm on the train now so I'll be there around 6
    which cannot be classed as an unsubstantiated prediction because of the speaker's obvious understanding of a current fact.
  2. We can use going to in exactly the same way, for example:
        The train's been delayed so I'm going to be late
    and that, too, is substantiated prediction and nothing to do with intention.
  3. We can use going to to make unsubstantiated predictions as in, for example:
        I wonder if she's going to come
    where the speaker has admitted to having no substantiated facts to work on.
  4. Again, we can use will in the same way:
        I wonder if she'll come
  5. There is a cline from substantiated to unsubstantiated with many intermediate levels of certainty and here we are in the realm of epistemic modality (the speaker's view of the truth of a proposition).  So, for example:
        He's going to be here shortly, he's just parking his car
        He'll be here shortly, he's just parking his car
    which are both substantiated predictions based on a current situation.
        He will be here soon
    which is an expression of certainty based on something unsaid but influential.
        He might be here soon
    which is an expression of uncertainty
        He must be here soon
    which is probably an expression of great certainty (because of knowledge of other facts) but might also, of course, be an expression of obligation.
  6. The verb will and the expression going to are interchangeable when there is some substantiation so we can have either:
        He'll be here shortly, he's just parking his car
        He's going to be here shortly, he's just parking his car
    with no discernible difference in meaning.
    And this can also imply a prediction based on current evidence as in, e.g.:
        It'll rain in a minute.  Look at those clouds
        It's going to rain in a minute.  Look at those clouds.

Because the differentiation between substantiated vs. unsubstantiated prediction is so difficult to make and because the two forms can so often be used interchangeably, it is not a useful classroom tactic to make this difference at all.
However, if one reserves will for prediction and going to for a present situation or intention with a prospective aspect, as the analysis on this site has it, one is on safer ground and the distinctions become more intuitive (and production more accurate as a result).
The next section expands on this idea.


The prospective nature of the to-infinitive

There is a simple and alternative way to look at the going to structure.
The to-infinitive in English often betokens some sort of prospective aspect as we see in, e.g.:
    I want to visit Margate next week
    I intend to take the train
    I mean to stay a night or two
    I would like to see you when I'm there
    I hope to visit the new museum
    I aim to come back next Thursday
    I plan to see my brother
    I expect to find him at home

and so on.  In all these cases, the first verb denotes a state which precedes the action or event denoted by the second verb in the to-infinitive form.  In other words, the to-infinitive signals a prospective event.
We can, if we get away from calling it the going to structure, view the verb go in the same way.  The only difference then is that the verb is conventionally used in the progressive form.
Even in this case, most of the verbs in our example apart, arguably, from want, mean and expect, can also be used progressively as in:
    I'm planning to see my brother
    I'm aiming to come back next Thursday

and so on.
The verb phrase would like, of course, cannot be used progressively because modal auxiliary verbs are always finite and have no infinitive or participle forms.
This analysis is not universally accepted and course books and grammars for learners are firmly wedded to calling the going to structure a future form.  It isn't really; it's the verb go followed by a to-infinitive.

If we look upon the structure as simply the verb go followed by a to-infinitive in the same way that verbs such as want, hope, expect, plan, aim, intend, mean and many more are used, then much of the fear and fog surrounding it is dissipated.
All these verbs and more denote a prospective aspect in some way and are all analysable in precisely the same way.
In other words, to repeat, the structure is not:
    going to + the bare infinitive
it is:
    going + the to-infinitive.
The upshot is that:
    I'm hoping to go
    I'm intending to go
    I'm meaning to go
    I'm going to go

are all more or less synonymous barring the strength of the intention signalled by the verb.  That consideration is semantic not grammatical.


Bleaching or grammaticalisation

It is worth a small diversion here to consider why, in the first place, we use will and going to to refer to future time.
Neither verb form has a long history of their current use as auxiliary verbs because they were both once simple lexical or main verbs.

We saw above that will derives from an earlier verb which meant something akin to the modern verb want and, indeed, the cognate verb in German and other Germanic languages still carries this sense:
    Ich will das Geld
    Ik wil het geld
    Jeg vil have pengene
    Jag vill ha pengarna
    Ég vil hafa peningana
in German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Icelandic, respectively all translate as
    I want the money
and are not future forms at all
In Modern English, the verb still carries this sense in some circumstances as in, for example:
    Help yourself to what you will (= ... what you want)
    Will you have some more coffee? (= Do you want ...)
The use of the verb as an auxiliary to refer to the future was already developing in Old English but not fixed until the 9th century.
going to
This verb still retains its initial meaning of travel or move as in:
    We are going to the cinema
and is often used to signal current actions, arrangements or intentions.
The use of going + to-infinitive to signal a future of some kind was not, however, established until the 15th century at roughly the end of the period described as Middle English.
The pronunciation often betrays the use of the verb.  When it is a future marker, it is often pronounced weakly (and sometimes spelled gonna) as /ˈɡənə/ but the lexical form is not weakened, retaining the full pronunciation as /ˈɡəʊɪŋ/.
You cannot transcribe
    We are going to the cinema
but you can transcribe
    I am going to go to the cinema
(Spelling going to as gonna incidentally, is an example of something called metaplasm.)

In both these cases, what has occurred is bleaching.  The lexical meaning of the verb has, so to speak, been bleached out of the lexeme, leaving it functioning only as a grammatical form with no intrinsic meaning.  An alternative way to describe this feature (which is common to many languages) is as grammaticalisation.


The present progressive vs. will and going to

We are signing the contract tomorrow

The traditional analysis of the present progressive used to refer to the future is that it signals an arrangement rather than volition, an intention or a prediction.  That is not wholly without merit but its use for the future can only be understood from previous or current events or states.
In other words, the use of the tense can only be discovered by reference to actions or states at a time before the future (now or in the past).

It is sometimes said, with reason, that when discussing plans and arrangements we use the present progressive form, when we make predictions we use will and when we refer to intentions we use the going to structure.  However, the forms are, in fact much more fluid than the simple difference suggests.  Functionally, there is little distinction between the meanings of the forms, so:
    He's taking a holiday next week
carries the same meaning as
    He's going to take a holiday next week
    He'll be on holiday next week
    I'm going to see my mother on Monday
    I'm seeing my mother on Sunday
    I'll see my mother on Sunday
are also virtually indistinguishable.

There are times, however, when the forms are not interchangeable or when ambiguity needs to be avoided.  In many of the cases below, the present progressive form is not allowed but an alternative exists either with the use of going to or in the form of the will future.

  1. Semantic disqualification
    red card
    With some verbs, arrangement is semantically possible.  For example, we can have:
        I'm turning up at my mother's party on Sunday
        I am going to turn up at my mother's party on Sunday
        I'll turn up at my mother's party on Sunday
    with little difference, if any, in meaning.
    But, if the meaning of the verb specifically excludes any possibility of a previously agreed arrangement then the progressive form is not possible so we can have:
        I am going to surprise my mother by turning up at her party on Sunday
        I'll surprise my mother by turning up at her party on Sunday
    but not:
        *I am surprising my mother by turning up at her party on Sunday
    because, semantically, you cannot arrange to be surprised, astonished, excited, disappointed, flabbergasted, bewildered etc.  All these sorts of participle adjectives and verbs are disqualified from appearing with the be + -ing form, therefore.
    They can all be used, quite naturally with both going to and the will future.
  2. Avoiding ambiguity
    alternative meanings
    The progressive form, in order to avoid ambiguity, usually needs to be accompanied by a time adverbial unless the context makes the future nature of the current plan clear.  So, for example, we can have:
        I'm going to drive to London
        I'll drive to London
    without context and the future sense is still clear.
        I'm driving to London
    without any context is ambiguous and could mean:
        I'm driving to London as we speak
        I'm planning / have arranged to drive to London

    or even
        It is my current, temporary habit to drive to London (rather than use an alternative form of transport).
    If the context does not clarify the situation, we need to insert a time adverbial to disambiguate what we are saying so, e.g.:
        I'm driving to London in the morning
        I'm driving to London soon
    are not ambiguous even without context because of the prepositional phrase adverbial or the adverb respectively.
    We do not need to insert a time adverbial when the context has already provided the temporal information so:
        A: Can you come in early tomorrow?
        B: Sorry.  I'm taking the kids to school
    is coherent.
  3. Stative vs. Dynamic verb uses
    The going to formulation and the will future can be used with verbs used statively so we allow, e.g.:
        He's going to be angry when he gets the news
        She's going to look wonderful at tonight's party
        They are going to seem out of place in that company

        He'll be angry when he gets the news
        She'll look wonderful at tonight's party
        They'll seem out of place in that company

    we do not allow the progressive forms:
        *He is being angry when he gets the news
        *She's looking wonderful at tonight's party
        *They are seeming out of place in that company

    if the reference is to the future.
    All three forms can be used with verbs used dynamically, only going to and will are used statively.
  4. Inanimate subjects
    We do not ascribe the ability to plan or form arrangements to inanimate objects so we allow, e.g.:
        Look out!  The ladder's going to slip in a minute
    but not:
        Look out!  *The ladder's slipping in a minute.
    The reason that:
        The ladder'll slip in a minute
    is not common (although it is possible) is twofold:
    Firstly, will, as we have seen, is commonly used for current volition and ladders do not have volition.
    Secondly, the going to formulation is often preferred for imminent events (as is the marginal modal auxiliary verb be about to).
    This distinction is most noticeable when we are talking about the weather.  Because it is inanimate, the weather is spoken about as:
        It's going to rain tomorrow
    or, with great certainty
        It'll rain tomorrow
    but not as
        It's raining tomorrow.
    This distinction is sometimes confused with the idea that the progressive form for the concept needs to refer to a personal arrangement.  That is a defensible point of view but focuses through the wrong end of the telescope.  It is the nature of participants (in this case the subject) which determines the appropriate form to use.
  5. Present evidence
    Only going to and, slightly less commonly will can be used to refer to present evidence leading to a future event.  So we allow:
        It's making her angry.  She's going to lose her temper soon
        It's making her angry.  She'll lose her temper soon
    but not
        It's making her angry.  *She's losing her temper soon
    because semantically, again, one does not normally arrange to lose one's temper.
    Again, the present evidence rule applies when talking about inanimate objects such as the weather when present evidence is important so we get, for example:
        Look at the clouds.  It's going to rain soon
        Look at the clouds.  It'll rain soon
    but not
        Look at the clouds.  *It's raining soon.
    In both these cases, the will future is an acceptable alternative to going to.
  6. Negative forms
    The equivalence of the will formulation and the going to structure is even more marked when the negative uses are considered.  For example:
        It's a lovely day and I'm sure it's not going to rain
    can be rendered as:
        It's a lovely day and I'm sure it won't rain
    with no significant change in meaning.
    This equivalence is maintained even for human subjects so, for example:
        I'm not going to be at the meeting
        I won't be to the meeting
    are functionally equivalent, although both can carry the sense of refusal (i.e., negative volition).
    Both negative forms can carry this sense of refusal rather than prediction so, e.g.:
        I won't explain it again
    is indistinguishable in meaning from
        I'm not going to explain it again.
  7. Past experience
    Prospective events based on past experience are also only realised through going to or will.  For example, we allow:
        When your father hears, he's going to laugh
        When your father hears, he'll laugh
    but not
        *When your father hears, he's laughing
    even though the future reference is clear.
    Again, past experience of weather conditions often makes the form suitable for that, too.  For example:
        It's going to snow a lot in Canada in January
        It'll snow a lot in Canada in January
        *It is snowing a lot in Canada in January
  8. Conditional and contingent clauses
    train snow
    This is another semantic (or pragmatic) issue.  For example, we allow:
        If the trains aren't running, I'm going to drive
    and it is a conditional expressing the fact that the speaker does not yet know if the trains will be running.
        If the trains aren't running, I'll drive
    also expresses the fact that the speaker does not yet know whether the trains will run or not and is speculating.
        If the trains aren't running, I'm driving
    does not have the same sense because it implies that the speaker already knows the trains are not running so has formed a plan or arrangement to drive.  It could be realised as
        As / Because the trains aren't running, I'm driving.
  9. Modal auxiliary verbs
    Because most modal auxiliary verbs are defective in English and do not exhibit the full range of forms that lexical or main verbs do, there are severe limitations on the ways they can be used with will, the going to or the be + -ing structure.
    • Deontic modality refers to duty or obligation and we allow, e.g.:
          I am going to have to talk to her
          I will have to talk to her
      and we also allow
          I am having to talk to her
      but the last of these refers to present rather than future obligation and
          ?I am having to attend a meeting tomorrow
      is questionable.
      Other expressions of this form of modality are rendered in the present with modal auxiliary verbs such as should and ought to.
      There are no equivalent forms using either of these structures so, e.g.:
          *He is going to ought to tell her
          *The are shoulding do it

      are not available.
      Other languages allow future forms of equivalent modal auxiliary verbs and learners may be surprised to find that English does not.  In fact, these deontic modal auxiliary verbs are used interchangeably in English to refer to present and future obligation as in, e.g.:
          I should smoke less
          I should talk to him
          I ought to be better at this
          I ought to tell her

    • Epistemic modality refers to possibility and likelihood and these are again not expressed with these structures so, e.g.:
          *He is going to ought to be there by now
          *She is shoulding be there soon
      are not possible.
      Both these future meanings are expressed using the same form for present and future time as in, e.g.:
          She should be here before six tomorrow
          They ought to arrive soon
          It ought to work
          It should be possible now

    • Alethic modality refers to the general truth of a proposition and is usually timeless so present forms are used and we cannot have, e.g.:
          *A square is going to have to have four sides
          *A square will have four sides
          *A square is having to have four sides.
      However, we do allow:
          A dodecahedron will have twelve sides
      because that is actually an example of a deduction from knowledge of Greek numbers and epistemic not alethic.
    • Dynamic modality refers to the individual's capabilities, as in, e.g.
          I can see the point
      The going to formulation and will are both available for some forms of dynamic modality to refer to a present ability realised in the future so we allow, e.g.:
          He is going to be able to help later
          He'll be able to help later
      but we do not allow, e.g.:
          *He is being able to help later
      so the be + -ing form is not available to refer to current ability realised in the future.
  10. Arrangements
    This is a marginal difference and more a tendency than a rule.  By their nature, arrangements are made between people but intentions can be formed individually and only later communicated to others.  Most English speakers will prefer, therefore:
        All of us are meeting at the restaurant in the square tomorrow
        All of us are going to meet at the restaurant in the square tomorrow
        All of us'll meet at the restaurant in the square tomorrow
    although all are possible with little effect on meaning.
    However, in an exchange such as:
        A: Are you writing to the boss about this?
        B: No.  I'm going to talk to her face to face.

    then the second speaker has only now communicated a pre-formed intention and, as we have seen, this can also be rendered as:
        B: No, I'll talk to her face to face
    If the second speaker had said:
        B: No.  I'm meeting her face to face.
    then the meaning is that the speaker and the boss have reached an agreement to meet.
    It is sometimes averred, by some who should know better, that the be + -ing form implies an arrangement between people.  It does, sometimes, but it is perfectly possible to use the form with the sense of only one person's intention.  For example:
        I'm giving John a lift to Margate tomorrow
    does imply an arrangement between the speaker and John which, note, has already been made but:
        I'm driving to Margate tomorrow
    implies no arrangement with anyone else at all.
    However, see above for the functional equivalence of the forms when used in negative sentences.
  11. Person
    In particular, when the subject of the verb is first-person plural an arrangement will be assumed, whichever form is taken so, to all intents and purposes:
        We are meeting in the station
        We'll meet in the station
        We are going to meet in the station
    are synonymous because of the plural first-person pronoun.
        John and I are going to meet at the station
        John and I are meeting at the station
    are synonymous.


Prospective aspect triggered by past events

It is possible that the event or state which triggers the future may even be in the past, omitting any reference to the present altogether as in, e.g.:
    We talked it over and we're going to emigrate.
    We had a long chat and are moving in together.
which are both examples of a perfective past simple resulting in a current prospective event.
The prospective present can also be combined with the perfect as in, e.g.:
    It has been agreed that I am driving
    It has been agreed that I'm going to drive.
In the last case, we have a perfective action (completed) couched in perfect form and followed by a prospective aspect in a present tense (and either form is acceptable).


Progressive, continuous, durative, iterative and habitual aspects in the future

He will be walking in the mountains
and will enjoy the solitude

The progressive aspect is not the same as the continuous.

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that an action will be in progress She will be having dinner around now so don't call till 8
the form is often used to avoid interruption
I want to say that an action will be in progress discontinuously She will be giving a series of lectures
but not all the time
I want to say that a state will exist He'll be feeling quite disappointed continuous
He'll feel quite disappointed
I want to say that a state of mind will exist She'll think you're mad
but not forever
I want to say that an action will become a routine I'll be travelling by train until the car's fixed
but then I won't
I'll travel by train until the car's fixed
less common
I want to say that an action may not be happening continuously but will repeat They'll be sending money every week
but not all the time
They'll send money every week
not only once
I want to say something will become a habit I'll take all my holiday in France in future
it will be an unbroken habit
I'll be taking all my holidays in France in future
it will be an unbroken habit
  1. Simple forms with certain types of verbal processes are still continuous in aspect.  This is the effect of stative and dynamic use and is not parallelled in many languages.
    1. mental processes such as enjoy, appreciate, love, feel, know, understand
      So, for example:
          He'll love a long holiday
      refers to a continuous future state.
    2. projecting processes such as hope, expect, imagine, suspect
      So, for example:
          I'll expect you around 6
      refers to a continuous future state and could also be phrased, with no change in meaning, as:
          I'll be expecting you around 6
    3. verbal processes such as say, aver, assert, describe, explain
      So, for example:
          At the meeting I'll describe and explain the plan in detail
      refers to a progressive action and could be rephrased with no change in meaning as:
          At the meeting I'll be describing and explaining the plan in detail.
  2. Both the simple and complex forms of the tense can be used for iterative, durative and habitual aspects but not for progressive or continuous aspects unless the verb denotes one of the processes mentioned in point 1.
    We can say
        He'll go to the office at nine every day (iterative)
        He'll take the train for a month instead of the bus (durative)
    but not
        *He'll have lunch so don't phone now (progressive)
  3. The volitional use of will does not occur in these aspects so, for example:
        I'll be taking the train
    only refers to the future, whereas, e.g.:
        I'll take the train tomorrow
    could mean:
        I am now willing to take the train tomorrow (so, say, you can have the car)
        I predict that this is my mode of transport tomorrow (and is a future tense form)
  4. The progressive form often refers to what is known as the future as a matter of course and signals that the speaker is aware of a routine event and what it affects.  For example:
        The London express will be passing through in a moment so stand back from the edge
        They'll be having lunch about now so I'll call later
    and in these examples, the speaker is aware of the timetable or people's habits.
  5. The comments made in the general guide to aspect and tense apply here, too, concerning the distinction between durative verbs which are progressive in nature such as play, read, rain etc. and punctual or momentary verbs such as hit, bang, drop etc. which, when used with a progressive form, imply repeated (i.e., iterative) aspect.
    So, for example:
        She'll be studying French
    is a progressive form but
        She'll be banging the drum
    is an iterative aspect.
    By the same token,
        ?She'll be breaking the glass
    makes no sense unless you believe that a glass can be broken more than once but
        She'll be breaking the glasses
    does make some sense because it can be seen as iterative, not progressive.
    This is a semantic rather than a grammatical issue.
    For more on punctual vs. durative forms, see the introductory guide in this section to time, tense, and aspect.  It's the link at the end.


Perfect aspect in the future

They will have been married
for 50 years next week

The perfect always refers one time to another.  It is a relational not an absolute time reference.
The functional way to see the tense is as the past set in the future as the time lines show.

The future perfect allows people to express how a future will look from a viewpoint later in the future.  It is, in other words, a reference to the past within the future.
Timelines are a helpful way to explain a sentence such as:

She will have made the point clear (EVENT 1) so every will understand (EVENT 2).

future perfect
Both Events 1 and 2 are clearly in the future (they come to the right of NOW) but from the point of view of Event 2, Event 1 is in the past.  That's why we refer to it as the past within the future.

The problem

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).

For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a future event began in the future's past will continue I will have worked on it for hours
and will continue to do so
I want to say that a finished past-in-the-future event will result in a change to the next event He will have arrived by then
so we'll be able to start
I want to say that a future past event (recent or not) will result in a future state I will have spent all my money
so I'll be broke

perfect +

We can combine the perfect aspect with a continuous, progressive, iterative, habitual or durative aspect and for this purpose, we will choose a different form.  All the following retain the sense of the perfect aspect, i.e., the relation of the future to a previous future but have an additional aspect grafted on to them.  The sense of the past within the future is maintained.
For example:

The meaning I want to convey Form of choice Aspect
I want to say that a previous future state will remain a current future state I will have been living there for over 10 years
and I intend to continue
perfect + continuous
I want to say that a future ongoing action will still be still occurring I will have been playing in the band for over a year
and will still play in the band
perfect + progressive
I want to say that a future series of events will go on They will have been coming here every Sunday for years by then
and will go on doing that
perfect + iterative
I want to say that a future routine will go on I will have been visiting France for over 20 years
and it will remain my habit to do so
perfect + habitual
I want to say that a future, long-lasting action will continue I will have been sitting here for most of the day
and will continue to do so thereafter
perfect + durative

Speakers will often choose a prepositional phrase (circumstance, if you prefer) introduced by by in both the perfect forms such as, e.g.:
    by six o'clock
    by the time he gets here
    by the end of the year



Perfect progressive aspect in the future

A number of considerations apply concerning whether the use of the progressive perfect is allowable or conventional.


Activity vs. Achievement

We can use both tenses to refer to a past within a future so we can say either:
    He will have climbed the mountain
    He will have been climbing the mountain
but in the first we are emphasising his achievement (i.e., the outcome of his efforts) and in the second, the activity itself (i.e., the efforts themselves).
The first verb use is telic (it has a clear end point) but the second is atelic (with no end point in sight).
Another example may make things clearer.

achievement or outcome
If we say, too:
    I will have finished my university course in a year
we are suggesting that it is the outcome of the activity or the achievement which carries the relevance to another future event, such as, for example, applying for work, going on to other studies and so on.
activity or effort
If, in contrast, we say:
    I will have been studying here for three years by then
we are emphasising that the activity and explaining what it is that the activity has involved.

Semantic considerations

verb meaning and achievement
Some verbs contain within their meaning the sense of achievement or outcome.
If, for example, we say:
    She will have succeeded
the use of the verb succeed usually prohibits the progressive form so we do not encounter:
    *She will have been succeeding
because the verb itself refers to achievement not activity.
Equally, we do not find:
    *They will have been accomplishing it
    *She will have been concluding it

and so on for similar reasons.
With verbs which imply any kind of achievement, the use of the progressive form is simply unnecessary (and usually wrong).
verb meaning and stative or dynamic use
The shorthand for this distinction is to think of stative and dynamic verbs and that is how it is often presented to learners.  A better way to consider it is to look at the meaning of a verb and ask whether its use in this meaning is stative or dynamic.
For example:
    By the end of the presentation, I hope they will have thought it is worth the time to do this
is the use of the verb think to mean believe but:
    She will have been thinking about the problem for weeks
is the use of the verb to mean deliberate or cogitate.
The rule is that when a verb is used statively, the progressive form is unacceptable.
It follows logically that verbs which are very firmly tied to a state rather than an action, such as own, seem, look like, possess, believe, suppose etc. will not appear in the progressive form so we do not allow, e.g.:
    *She will have been owning the house for three years
    *She will have been believing his lies

Other verbs, which are polysemous and can be used in both forms with a change in meaning include have, consider, think, appear, imagine, judge, look, occur etc. and may appear in either simple or progressive structures depending on the meaning intended so we can allow:
    She will have been having parties at her villa
    They will have been considering the expense

and so on, but not
    *She will have been having a pet at home
    *They will have been considering it correct
adverbials and time / event markers
The distinction is clear here, too.
We can say, for example:
    I will have flown across the Atlantic four times
    They will have run six marathons
and so on because we are focused on the achievement or outcome of the actions.
Using the same forms with the progressive makes no sense because the focus of the progressive is on the efforts or activities, not the outcomes so we do not find:
    *I will have been flying across the Atlantic four times
    *They will have been running six marathons
It is important to get the causality the right way round here.  It is the meaning of the utterance which determines the availability of the adverbial noun phrases in these cases, not the noun phrases which determine the correct tense use.


As is the case with most tense forms in English, telicity plays an important role.  For example:
    The house will have been built
is telic because we are clearly stating the building work is finished, but:
    The house will have been being built
is atelic because the end point of the building is not implied.
This is clearer when a prepositional time phrase is included:
    The house will have been built in a year
is telic and the end point is explicit
    The house will have been being built for a year
is atelic because there is no explicit end point in sight.
Again, the choice of the correct prepositional phrase time expression depends on the meaning conveyed by the aspect of the verb, not the other way around.



The future perfect tenses, both simple and progressive are described as having a perfect aspect and by that it is meant that the tenses refer in some way to the past within the future.
This is true but the progressive form is also use to describe two other aspects which are not obvious by looking at the forms.

This aspect refers to events or actions which are repeated, and that is what iteration means.  For example:
    John will have telephoned his wife so she will know the news
implies a single past event set in the future to show its relevance to that future (that his wife will know something).
    John will have been telephoning his wife
implies a series of events of the same kind.  The sense is still of a past within the future but in this case we are concerned to show that the event is repeated so the form of choice is future perfect progressive (although it might be better referred to as future perfect iterative).
The act of telephoning is a punctual, not durative event so semantically that determines the sense conveyed by the tense form.
This aspect refers to events or actions which take a substantial time.  We are emphasising, then, the duration of the event or action.  For example:
    John will have lived in London for many years
simply states a fact and sets the event in a future context so, for example, John will be a good person to ask about the city.
    John will have been living in London for many years
means roughly the same but the speaker's emphasis is on the duration of the event, not the event itself.  Past relevance within the future is maintained.

It makes sense, of course, to handle these distinctions piecemeal with learners rather than expecting them to absorb all this in a single sitting.

Take a short test to see if you can match future aspect to meaning.

the tenses index