Afew of my students had been a little confused recently when we looked at future forms in class. I think it’s partly because some grammar books and coursebook writers give rules which are either not true or not fully accurate, ultimately adding to the confusion. So my aim here in the next few posts is to clarify things for you.
First, there is no ‘future tense’ in English. In fact, we have a variety of forms to choose from when we want to refer to events in the future or ‘post-present’.
The forms that we choose depend on how we see the future event. The grammatical form which we use depends on things like our mood, how we feel about the future event, how objective or subjective or neutral we want to be, and on factors such as our sense of obligation, hope and certainty.
If you’re not sure what I mean, let’s start with a very practical example:
Communicating your Plans and Arrangements
Look at the following sentences. Which ‘tense’ do we use for talking about our plans and arrangements?
I’m having dinner with John tonight.
I’m catching up with Kelly tomorrow.
Next week I’m heading off to Berlin for a few days.
I’m finally seeing that film tonight.
As you can see, we use the Present Continuous (or ‘present progressive’) when we refer to our plans. This confuses some students because they were taught that the future is either ‘WILL’ or ‘GOING TO’. It’s not!
Second, textbooks often say it’s ‘present continuous for the future’, which gets students to think English is chaotic with its rules and exceptions.
Actually, if you look at when we use the present continuous you’ll see that using it for your future plans is part of the rule, not part of an exception.
What do I mean here? We use the present continuous when we see an event as being temporary. We see it as having a start and an end, and we expect this process or time between beginning and end to be temporary. ie this time will end!
eg “I’m reading a book by Thomas Swamp at the moment.”
Here the person may have started the book last week, and is now in the process of reading it, and expects to finish it next week. Or next month. All up, this is an action in progress.
Likewise, when we make our plans, we see this as an action in progress. How? Maybe last night I wrote in my diary “film – Sunday 7.30”. So this was the beginning of this temporary period.
Now imagine my friend Angelina calls me up and asks:
“What are you doing on Sunday?”
I’ll reply: “I’m seeing a film.”
I see this whole process as beginning when I wrote down in my diary last night “film – Sunday” and I see this as ending when the film finishes.
So whether we use present continuous to refer to what we’re doing now or ‘for the future’, it’s the same rule.
When we talk about things in the future that we have already planned and arranged to do, we use the present continuous. We often use only small selection of verbs to communicate this. eg go out; see; visit; meet; stay; come; go; have.
-> I’m going out on Friday.
I’m seeing Tiffiny at 2 o’clock.
I’m visiting family at the weekend.
I’m meeting Mr Obama in front of Tesco.
I’m staying with Julie this weekend.
GOING TO + verb
Of course here GOING TO + verb is also fine:
I’m going to meet Mr Obama in front of Tesco.
However it would not be correct to say: *I go to meet Mr Obama” or * “I meet Mr Obama in front of Tesco.”
(the only main note on this is that this is becoming more acceptable in Text English, when you’re using your mobile phone and you want to use fewer characters)
Compare: “I’m taking Amanda Righetti to the cinema tonight. The film starts at 7:30.”
We see our plans as being temporary – the plan will begin when we write it down into our diary and then end when we’ve completed the whole action. However in the case of timetabled events, we see these as being permanent and therefore we use the present simple.
eg “The train arrives at 5am.”
“The flight leaves tonight at 7pm.”
“The bus leaves in five minutes’, so hurry up!”
“The play is at the Cameron Theatre and starts at 8pm.”
We see these as being permanent because these events are written on an official timetable and are the same week in, week out.
How was this article for you? Was it the right level for you? Please feel free to leave a comment below!
Next time we’ll look at making predictions with WILL and GOING TO, talk about when to use ‘LL and how we express our hopes obligations.
Further reading for teachers:
R.A. Close A teacher’s grammar LTP (1992)
Martin Parrot Grammar for English language teachers Cambridge University Press (200)
Further reading for students:
Michael Swan Practical English Usage Oxford University Press (1996)
nb this book now has a much more recent student’s edition
One could think that future tenses belong to more simple English grammar categories. But not at all.
Now I know that if I want to meet Mr Obama in front of Tesco I have to write it down in my diary. Then, I’m definitely meeting him. How easy! 🙂
David Sweetnam says
That’s great – you’re definitely meeting Mr Obama 🙂
Btw as a language junkie Gabriela you might wanna check out this link: -> http://gu.com/p/2mkdb/tw You can watch Obama’s recent speech and follow the text at the same time.
Great explanation David! I hope I can finally remember these tricky rules 🙂 Now I know I have to say “I’m meeting Mr. Right tomorrow” instead of “I’m going to meet Mr. Right tomorrow”. How easy:-)
David Sweetnam says
Haha 🙂 Well, you CAN say “I’m going to meet Mr Right tomorrow” if that’s your intention.
If you know he’s Mr Right, and you put your date in your diary then you can say to your jealous girlfriends: “I’m meeting Mr Right tomorrow.”
Hmm, is meeting Miss Right easy?
kasun chamara (Sri lanka) says
Thanks a lot teacher. It was a great one for me..
Andrés Jara says
It has been very helpful, I’ve got a presentation about this topic on monday and I think I’m a little more ready to explain it 🙂
David Sweetnam says
Hi Andrés thanks for visiting and I hope your presentation went well. Are you a teacher?
thank you very much sir it was very helpful
David Sweetnam says
Hi and thanks for reading the blog today! This is an old post but there’s a bit here on plans: http://getintoenglish.com/talking-about-plans-for-summer/