General Explanations For English Future Forms

One grammar explanation that can be used to explain almost all future tenses, plus a debunking of two common but inaccurate attempts to do so

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

The range of verb forms used in English to talk about the future is one of the most difficult parts of the language. Misconceptions like “Present Continuous is for the near future” are common, sometimes for reasons of L1 interference but often because of misteaching. This article will give advice on how to present the most common future tenses in the easiest to understand and most generalisable way.

The General Explanation

Unlike many other languages, future tenses in English only usually tell us about how the person speaking thinks about the future event. For example, if they think of it as an arrangement (= something decided with someone else, e.g. by buying a ticket), a plan (= something they decide themselves, such as an ambition) or a prediction (their picture of something that they cannot change), they will use three different tenses. They will also use different structures if they think of something as a prediction with present evidence or as a prediction without present evidence. The same is true of things that we think of as plans (= something that was decided before speaking) or spontaneous decisions (= something decided as I am speaking). All of these structures and meanings are described in detail below.

Another way to give a good general description of future tenses is to say that they show our attitudes towards the future events. This is not surprising because if we define a tense as involving changes in the verb, English doesn’t in fact have many future tenses. Instead, we usually uses modal verbs (e.g. “will”) and modal-like structures (e.g. “be + going to”) to show that events are in the future. It is perhaps therefore natural that such verbs show our attitudes in a similar way to “should” and “can”.

Whichever explanation you use, both of them are incompatible with the two most common attempts at general explanations, both of which work for various other languages but are neither generally true nor useful when teaching English.

One wrong explanation is that the different tenses show how certain the future events are. Making an arrangement might generally seem to make an event more likely than it just being my own plan. However, the chances of the event happening in fact depend on the reliability of the person or organisation that I made the arrangement with, as well as my own determination to make my plans take place. For example, we can say “I’m flying to Okinawa on Tuesday, if the airline doesn’t go bankrupt before then” and “I’m definitely going to ask her out this week”, in which case the second one (the plan) seems more likely to actually happen than the first.

The second explanation that is not entirely true is that we use different tenses to show how far in the future something is. It is true that an arrangement is often for next week and we can make predictions about the distant future when men live on Mars. However, in the sentences “Whatever happens, we’re staying in this house while any of us are still alive” and “He won’t be happy when he sees that” the sentence with will is about an event in the nearer future.

Although an explanation that emphasizes that the correct tense depends on how you think about the future event will never have the simplicity of the two false but popular ones that I have debunked above, I have found it to be manageable and useful in all levels from high-Elementary to Proficiency. The rest of this article will show how you can use it to explain certain typically contrasted tenses. I will also look at the one major exception to this rule.

Present Continuous/Going To/Will

These are the three tenses that are used to talk about the arrangements, plans and predictions (in that order) that are mentioned above.

An arrangement can be defined as something that has already involved someone else, e.g. when you booked your hotel room, made an appointment with the dentist, or made a date with someone. “Bookings/ reservations”, “dates”, “appointments” and “meetings” are all useful examples to give when explaining what “arrangement” means, as students have often not heard the word before. Examples of Present Continuous for Arrangements include “I’m sorry, I’m meeting a client at that time. Can we make it later?” and “I’m watching that movie with my girlfriend tonight, so don’t tell me what happens”.

A plan, by contrast, is something that you have decided, e.g. a New Year’s resolution, an ambition, a goal, or something on a to-do list. Examples include “I’m going to give up smoking this year” and “I’m just going to chill this weekend”. Because it is used for plans, “I’m going to” often means exactly the same as “I’m planning to” and is the most common tense to answer “What are your plans for…?” questions with.

A prediction is your picture or imagination of something that you cannot change. This means that predictions are often about things apart from yourself, such as society, other people, and trends. It is also possible to make predictions about yourself, e.g. “I’ll lose all my hair by the time I’m 50” (obviously neither an arrangement nor a plan!)

Although many students are not clear about the terms “arrangement” and “prediction” before I start these explanations, it is fairly easy to understand if you use this description and the accompanying example sentences and illustrating words (e.g. “ambition”). Another more general explanation of the differences between arrangements, plans and predictions is that an arrangement is usually in my diary, a plan is in my head, and a prediction is out there in the world.

Perhaps the biggest exception to the rule is that “I’m going to go” is often simplified to “I’m going”, mainly because of how clumsy the former sounds. This means that with the verb “to go” we have problems knowing whether “I’m going to Hawaii” is an arrangement or a plan. This seldom makes much difference, and is only an issue with the verb “to go”, but is well worth mentioning when presenting these three types of future events.

Will And Going To For Predictions

The most common explanation for the difference between “It will rain” and “It’s going to rain” is that “going to” is used when you have present evidence such as a visual clue, e.g. a black cloud. By contrast, “It will rain” might be because it always does this time of year or that is happens every time I try to have a barbecue.

The problem with any explanations or practice activity to contrast these two different kinds of prediction is that there are very few situations in which you can only use one of the two tenses. For example, “will” is often practised with activities such as palm reading, but a fortune teller probably thinks of the lines on your palm as present evidence, making “going to” much more natural. The same is true with predictions based on graphs – if we see the previous line as telling us how the future will pan out, then we use “going to” rather than the more common “will”.

Although this can make realistic controlled practice activities very difficult to think of and find, I prefer to see this as a perfect opportunity to explain or reinforce the fact that the verbs form that you choose depends on how you think about that future event, as explained above.

Future Continuous

The future continuous (will + be + verb with ing) has two uses. One is to talk about something in progress at a future point in time, e.g. “Don’t phone me at 6 in the morning again, because I’ll be sleeping”. The other is to emphasize the certainty of something, e.g. “In no time at all, we’ll all be buying 3D TVs” (as against the less confident-sounding “In no time at all, we’ll all buy 3D TVs”).

My use of the word “certainty” in the previous sentence points out straightaway that this tense is in some way an exception to my arguments against the use of probability to explain the differences between future tenses, and it can simply be taught as an exception if you like. Another approach is to provide further explanation by linking the two uses of the Future Continuous together, for example with sentences like “I’m really sorry but I’ll be meeting my boss at that time” to refuse invitations. In this case, it is not really possible to say which of the two meanings the sentence has, therefore making the use of Future Continuous as the only tense that suggests a level of certainty a bit more understandable.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
February 2011 | Filed under Teaching
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