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Future time

This month’s article deals with the future tense, which in my opinion is one of the most difficult aspects of English for the non-native speaker. In fact it is a little misleading to speak of the future tense, because English does not have one. At least, it doesn’t have one in the sense of having a future tense form, as in French for example: je joue (I play) - je jouerai (I will play). Instead, the user of English has to choose between several possible ways of referring to the future and each of them has a different meaning. Look at the following examples:

I’m playing I’m playing golf with my boss after work next Tuesday.
I’m going to play I’m going to play golf at least once a week this year - I want to get fit.
I’ll play (I will play) I think I’ll play golf after work tomorrow.
I shall play I shall play golf - nobody is going to stop me.
I might play I might play golf tomorrow - it depends on the weather.
I played If I played golf tomorrow, I’d probably break my back - I’m so unfit!
I will be playing At this time next week I’ll be playing golf on the first day of my vacation.
I will have played At the end of my vacation I will have played enough golf to last all year.
I will have been playing By the time I’m 75 I will have been playing golf for half a century.
I play I have a busy schedule next week: on Tuesday I arrive in New York, on Wednesday I play golf with the Marketing Manager ..

Go to an explanation of these future forms, and further examples.

Native English speakers intuitively choose the most appropriate way to express themselves about the future, although few are aware of the rules governing their choice. For the non-native speaker, however, this is a major difficulty.

Exercise 1

As a short test, imagine you are talking with your English colleagues in the office. Someone asks you what you are going to have for lunch. How would you respond?

A little later you see a colleague you haven’t talked to for a while and suggest having lunch together. What would you say?

Just after this you see your boss. What do you tell him?

See Answers

Exercise 2

Now try and supply the most appropriate form of the future in the following sentence. (In some cases there may be more than one possible answer.)

Example: I (kill) you if you do that again!

Answer: I’ll kill you if you do that again!

1. John (get married) next month.

2. Did you pass your test? - I’m not sure. I (know) tomorrow.

3. I (call) Jane later and ask her to come to my party.

        Don’t phone her at between 6 and 7 o’clock. She (have) a bath.

        OK! I (ring) her tomorrow morning.

4. My plane (leave) Frankfurt at 10.30 and I (arrive) in new York at midnight.

5. Did you know your CD player is broken?

        Oh, is it? I (have) it repaired tomorrow.

6. Did you know your CD player is broken?

        Yes, I (have) it repaired tomorrow.

7. This white bread tastes horrible. OK. I (buy) brown bread from now on.

8. Anne says she (buy) brown bread from now on.

9. you (come) to the dance on Friday? Yes, and I (dance) all night.

10. I (give) drive you to work tomorrow if you like.

        Thanks, but Peter (take) me.

11. Oh dear, the batteries in my Walkman are flat. I (buy) some in town tomorrow.

        There’s no need. I (see) my brother this evening. I’m sure he (lend) you some.

12. I’m really looking forward to my holiday. At this time next week I (lie) on the beach in the sun (read) a good book.

13. I (buy) a new camera when I’m in Japan next week, but I’m not sure yet.

14. I (meet) my mother at the airport tomorrow.

Answers


Exercise 1 Answers

Someone asks you what you are going to have for lunch. How would you respond (1)?

The most likely answer is I think I’ll have fish for a change, since the speaker is making a spontaneous remark about the future. I think I’m going to have fish for a change is possible, but I think I’m having fish for a change is incorrect since it does not refer to an arrangement.

 

A little later you see a colleague you haven’t talked to for a while and suggest having lunch together. What would you say?

The most usual here would be I’m going to have fish for lunch today since the "going to" form expresses an intention. The answer I’m having fish for lunch today. is also possible but far less likely; whereas I’ll have fish for lunch today sounds very odd.

 

Just after this you see your boss. What do you tell him?

The most likely choice is answer I’m having lunch with Mike today since this form (the present continuous) is most often chosen to express an arrangement. The answer I’m going to have lunch with Mike today is OK too, but again the future form with "will" I’ll have lunch with Mike today sounds very strange.

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Exercise 2 Answers

1. John is getting married next month.

Marriage is clearly an arrangement and so the present continuous form is used.

2. Did you pass your test? - I’m not sure. I’ll know tomorrow.

This is the pure future, with no expression of arrangement or intention.

 3. I’m going to call Jane later and ask her to come to my party.

The "going to" form expresses a plan or intention.

        Don’t phone her at between 6 and 7 o’clock. She’ll be having a bath.

This form is used when we want to indicate that the future event will be of a certain duration

        OK! I’ll ring her tomorrow morning.

The will form is used here because the reference to the future is spontaneous - i.e. there is no prior intention or arrangement, and the statement is made at the moment of decision.

4. My plane leaves Frankfurt at 10.30 and I arrive in new York at midnight.

The present simple form is used when the future event is determined by a schedule outside of the speaker's control.

5. Did you know your CD player is broken?

        Oh, is it? I’ll have it repaired tomorrow.

As in nr. 3 above, the will form is used here because the reference to the future is spontaneous - i.e. there is no prior intention or arrangement.

 6. Did you know your CD player is broken?

        Yes, I’m going to have it repaired tomorrow.

In this case the intention to have the CD player repaired already exists and so the "going to" form is used.

7. This white bread tastes horrible. OK. I’ll buy brown bread from now on.

This is another example of the use of will for spontaneous references to the future.

8. Anne says she’s going to buy brown bread from now on.

The speaker knows that Anne has already made the intention to buy brown bread, so the going to form is used.

9. Are you coming to the dance on Friday? Yes, and I’m going to dance all night.

The speaker assumes that her friend has arranged with others to come to the dance, and so uses the present continuous form here. Equally possible would be: Are you going to come to the dance on Friday?

The answer uses the going to form to express the speaker's intention.

10. I’ll give drive you to work tomorrow if you like.

The speaker has probably made spontaneous offer of help (e.g. on hearing that his friend’s car has broken down) and so has used the will form.

        Thanks, but Peter is taking me.

The person replying has used the present continuous form because he has already discussed and arranged with Peter the future event.

11. Oh dear, the batteries in my Walkman are flat. I’ll buy some in town tomorrow.

It’s clear from the exclamation Oh dear! that the speaker has just discovered that the batteries are flat and has made a spontaneous decision to buy some the next day.

        There’s no need. I’m seeing my brother this evening. I’m sure he’ll lend you some.

The person replying has arranged to meet his brother (hence the use of the present continuous tense) and then uses will (he’ll lend.)

12. I’m really looking forward to my holiday. At this time next week I will be lying on the beach in the sun reading a good book.

The future continuous is used because the speaker wants to emphasize what will be happening at a certain time in the future.

13. I might buy a new camera when I’m in Japan next week, but I’m not sure yet.

Might is used to express possibility. The speaker may buy a camera but it is far from certain that he will.

14. I’m meeting my mother at the airport tomorrow.

The present continuous is used for arrangements. You could say I’m going to meet my mother at the airport tomorrow, but this form gives no indication whether or not you have discussed your imtention with your mother. Your arrival at the airport to meet her may be a surprise for your mother!


Explanations

1. I’m playing (I’m playing golf with my boss after work next Tuesday.)

This form of the future (the present continuous) is used to talk about an arrangement that has been made in discussion with another person.

Further examples:

From the explanation above it, follows that the statement: (I feel tired today). I’m staying at home and reading my book this evening. is incorrect since "reading a book" is not an arrangement that has been made with another person.

 2. I’m going to play (I’m going to play golf at least once a week this year - I want to get fit.

a. The future form with "going to" has several uses. The most common use is seen in the example sentence, where it expresses a plan or intention for the future. In this case, it would be perfectly possible to say: (I feel tired today). I’m going to stay at home and read my book this evening.

Further examples:

 b. "Going to" is also used to express a prediction.

Examples:

 3. I’ll play (I think I’ll play golf after work tomorrow.)

a. The form of the future with will has various uses. One of its uses is when there is NOT a prior intention or arrangement; i.e. when you make a spontaneous reference to the future. For example someone says: My car’s broken down! and you reply No problem, I’ll drive you home. I’m going to drive you home or I’m driving you home or I drive you home (as some native German speakers might say) are all wrong.

Further examples:

b. The future with "will" is sometimes called the pure future and is often used in a statement containing a time reference.

Examples:

c. "Will" is also used in sentences with the words "if" or "when" or "unless".

Examples:

4.     I shall play (I shall play golf tomorrow - nobody is going to stop me.)

This use of "shall" to talk about a future event implies a determination to do something despite opposition, and is spoken with stress on the word "shall".

 

5.     I might play (I might play golf tomorrow - it depends on the weather.)

"Might" is used to express the possibility (but not the probability) that something will happen in the future.

Further examples:

 6.     I played (If I played golf tomorrow, I’d probably break my back - I’m so unfit!)

The past tense form is used to express the future, as in this case, when the speaker wishes to imply that the future event is unlikely. This grammar form is often called the conditional 2. Here are more examples:

7.     I will be playing (At this time next week I’ll be playing golf on the first day of my vacation.

This future tense form (the future continuous) is used when the speaker states a time and says what action will be happening at that time.

Further examples:

8.     I will have played (At the end of my vacation I will have played enough golf to last all year.)

This is the future perfect tense. It is used when the speaker wants to talk about what will have happened by a certain time.

Further examples:

 

9.     I will have been playing (By the time I’m 75 I will have been playing golf for half a century.

This tense is called the future perfect continuous. It is quite rare and complicated to explain. Its main use is when the speaker refers to a time in the future and then says how long an activity will have been going on from a time in the past up to that point.

 10.     I play (I have a busy schedule next week: on Tuesday I arrive in New York, on Wednesday I play golf with the                  Marketing Manager ..

The present simple form is often used for the future events that are set by a timetable or are otherwise outside of the speakers control.

Further examples:

 

Note: The explanations given here are extremely brief and by no means cover all the ways a speaker can refer to a future event. For a comprehensive analysis of this very complicated aspect of English grammar I can recommend Practical English Usage by M. Swan, Oxford University Press.

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