The future is uncertain. We know the past. We know the present. We do not know the future. We can be 100% sure or certain about the past and the present. But we can never be 100% certain about the future. In English there are several structures and tenses to talk about the future. It is usually the degree of certainty about the future that decides our choice of structure or tense.
In this lesson we look at four of the most common ways to talk about the future, followed by a summary and then a quiz to check your understanding.
Although we often talk about “future tense”, technically there are no future tense in English – only different ways of talking about the future, using special constructions, other tenses or modal verbs.
One of the most common ways to talk about the future is with will, for example: I will call you tonight. We often call this the “future simple tense”, but technically there are no future tenses in English. In this construction, the word will is a modal auxiliary verb.
Here are the three main ways that we use will to talk about the future.
We use will when there is no prior plan or decision to do something before we speak. We make the decision at the time of speaking. Look at these examples:
- Hold on. I‘ll get a pen.
- We will see what we can do to help you.
- Maybe we‘ll stay in and watch television tonight.
In these examples, we had no firm plan before speaking. The decision was made at the time of speaking.
We often use will with the verb think:
- I think I‘ll go to the gym tomorrow.
- I think I‘ll have a holiday next year.
- I don’t think I‘ll buy that car.
We often use will to make a prediction about the future. Again, there is no firm plan. We are saying what we think will happen. Here are some examples:
- It will rain tomorrow.
- People won’t go to Jupiter before the 22nd century.
- Who do you think will get the job?
The verb be is an exception with will. Even when we have a very firm plan, and we are not speaking spontaneously, we can use will with be. Look at these examples:
- I will be in London tomorrow.
- There will be 50 people at the party.
- The meeting will be at 9.30 am.
The verb be is always exceptional!
We use the special going to construction when we have the intention to do something before we speak. We have already made a decision before speaking. Look at these examples:
- I have won $1,000. I am going to buy a new TV.
- We’re not going to see my mother tomorrow.
- When are you going to go on holiday?
In these examples, we had an intention or plan before speaking. The decision was made before we spoke.
We often use going to to make a prediction about the future. Our prediction is based on evidence. We are saying what seems sure to happen. Here are some examples:
- The sky is very black. It is going to snow.
- It’s 8.30! You’re going to miss the train!
- I crashed the company car. My boss isn’t going to be very happy!
In these examples, the present situation (black sky/the time/damaged car) gives us a good idea of what is going to happen.
- We use will for prediction when we have no real evidence: “It will rain tomorrow.” (It’s my feeling but I can’t be sure.)
- We use going to for prediction when there is some real evidence: “It’s going to rain.” (There’s a big, black cloud in the sky and if it doesn’t rain I’ll be very surprised.)
Present Continuous for Plan
We often use the present continuous tense to talk about the future. Of course, we normally use the present continuous to talk about action happening in the present, but if we add a future word, we can use it to talk about the future. (By “future word” we mean words or expressions like tomorrow, next week, in June. The future word may be clearly expressed or understood from the context.)
- We’re going to paint the bedroom tomorrow.
- We’re painting the bedroom tomorrow.
We use the present continuous only when a plan exists before we speak. Look at these examples:
- Mary is taking her music exam next year.
- They can’t play tennis with you tomorrow. They‘re working.
- We‘re going to the theatre on Friday.
Present Simple for Schedule
When an event is on a schedule or timetable (for example, the take-off time for a plane), we often use the present simple to express the future. We usually also use a future phrase (expressed or understood) like tomorrow, at 6.30pm, next week.
Only a few verbs are used in this way, for example:
- be, open, close, begin, start, end, finish, arrive, come, leave, return
Look at these sentences:
- The train leaves Detroit at 9pm tonight.
- John starts work next week.
- Tomorrow is Thursday.
Future Time: Summary
When we speak, we choose the tense that we use. This is important in English, because the tense we choose expresses more than just a simple fact. When we speak about the future, the tense we choose can express how we “see” the future, even our personal feelings about the future. It certainly expresses what we believe to be the probability (the chance, the reality) of something happening or whether we have already decided to do it.
This table gives a simple scale of probability for each structure. It is not exact because language is not a science, and there are many variables. This table should help you to think about the “concept” of the future in English. This concept does not exist in all languages, but it is rather important in English.
|% probability (before speaking) of event happening||structure||used for||example|
|0%||will||no plan||Don’t get up. I’ll answer the phone.|
|70%||going to||intention||We’re going to watch TV tonight.|
|90%||present continuous||plan||I’m taking my exam in June.|
|99.999%||present simple||schedule||My plane takes off at 6.00am tomorrow.|
It is impossible in English to express the future with 100% certainty. (The speakers of any language that can do this must all be trillionaires!)