How to Talk about Future Situations: 5 EFfective tips from English Forward

Do you worry about whether you should use will, BE going to or the present progressive when talking about future situations? You are not alone. Many learners have this problem. Here are five tips to make life easier for you.

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1. Stop worrying

Despite what some course books and student grammars suggest, there is often little significant difference in meaning between the common ways of talking about the future . In most common situations, three native speakers might use three different forms. Even if you use a form that a native speaker wouldn’t, you will still be understood.

However, you probably want to sound as natural as possible, so let’s look at the most common ways of talking about the future.

2. Using BE going to

This is one of the most common ways of talking about the future and, in conversation and informal writing, it is almost always correct and natural. The key thing about BE going to is that there is that speakers using it always have some form of present evidence of the future situation. Here are three examples:

2.1. It’s going to rain soon.

2.2. Lindsay is going to see Les Miserables next week.

2.3. Andrea and I are going to sell our house and move to Bali.

In [2.1], you have perhaps seen dark clouds moving in, and you know from previous experience that this normally means rain. The clouds are your present evidence.

In [2.2], you know about Lindsay’s future trip to the theatre, perhaps because you have seen the tickets, or perhaps Lindsay has told you. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is present evidence of the future trip in the your mind.

In [2.3], the present evidence is the arrangement/plan the you and Andrea have made. In this particular situation, we could say that you are expressing your intention. This is often true when we use Be going to, but it is not always true. Whether or not there is intention, there is always present evidence in some form.

3. Using the Present Continuous

This is another common way of talking about the future and, in conversation and informal writing, like BE going to, is almost always correct and natural. The key thing about the present continuous is that speakers using it always have some arrangement in mind . Here are two examples:

3.1 Lindsay is seeing Les Miserables next week.

3.2. Andrea and I are selling our house and moving to Bali.

In both these situations, you are talking about arrangements that have been made. You notice that the situations in [3.1] and [3.2] are the same as those in [2.2] and [2.3], in which we used BE going to. That’s because if the present evidence is an arrangement we have made, we can use either form. They mean effectively the same. However, as we can’t arrange for certain things, such as

future rain, we can’t say:

3.3. It’s raining soon,

even if we have present evidence (such as dark clouds) of the future rain.

4. Using Will + bare infinitive

This form is sometimes known as the future tense. This is not very helpful, because will is merely one of several modals we can use to refer to the future, and (2) it’s not as commonly used in speech and informal writing as BE going toor the present continuous. We use will in three main ways:
a. To express our certainty about a future situation, as in:

4.1. The population of the UK will reach 70 million by 2030.

4.2. Children born in 2020 will have a much harder life than than those of us born seventy years before had.

In each case the speaker has expressed his/her certainty about the future.

Could we use BE going to in those sentences?

Yes. The certainty is based on present evidence.

Which is better?

Neither is ‘better’. BE going to is more likely to be used in speech and informal writing, and will in more formal speech and writing, but there are no firm rules about this.

Could we use the present continuous in those sentences? No. The future situations referred to are not things we can arrange.
b. To express our willingness to do something, as in:

4.3. Luke will drive you to the airport tomorrow.

4.4. I’ll cook Sunday lunch this week.
Although we could use the present continuous or BE going to in those sentences, they would suggest the idea of an arrangement, something for which there is present evidence, rather than willingness.
c. To indicate an instant plan:

We sometimes use will, almost always in it contracted form ‘ll, to talk about a plan for the future that we have just thought of:

4.4. I don’t know what to do this evening. Aaah! I’ve had an idea. I’ll go to the cinema.

5. Present Simple

We normally use the present simple for a future event only if we see the future situation as something that is part of a fixed schedule:

5.1 The flight to Shanghai departs at 13.54 next Tuesday.

5.2. Luke leaves for Rome on 19 May.

In both of these, we see the the future event as scheduled. We may be looking at a timetable or diary, actually or mentally. In [5.1], it is likely that a flight to Shanghai departs every Tuesday, but this regularity is not essential for using this tense.

Could we express this thought in other ways?

Yes. We can see these events as things that have been arranged for the future, and use the present continuous.

We can see them as something for which we have present evidence, and use BE going to.

We could also, if we wished, express certainty, some willingness by using will + bare infinitive.

Which is better?

The one you wish to use! There is very often no single ‘right’ way to talk abut the future. We could also, if we wished, express certainty, some willingness by using will + bare infinitive.

That’s it. You have much more freedom of choice with these tenses than you thought.

There are other ways of talking about the future in English, as there are in many other languages, but you have just read about the most common ones. If you bear these tips in mind, you will usually sound natural, rarely sound unnatural, and always be understood.

Written by Jed Webb

In his fifty-year career, Jed has taught English in China, the Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lebanon, Oman and Turkey; contributed to several course books; and been a teacher-trainer, a Cambridge examiner (and a driving instructor!). Now semi-retired, he enjoys responding to questions in English Forward.

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