The future in English
Unlike many European languages there is no specific tense which is used to refer to the future in English. Instead there are a number of ways of talking about or referring to the future.
Be going to
See main article be going to.
By far the most frequently-used future in spoken English - the be going to structure is used to talk about:
- Plans and intentions (I'm going to ask my boss for a rise.)
- To predict the future based on evidence in the present (Look at that cloud - we're going to get soaked!)
- To make predictions about future events that are outside our control (I've spoken to them about it, but they're going to do whatever they want.)
Will and modal verbs in general
Although often claimed to be "the future" in English, will is simply one of several modal verbs which may be used to refer to the speaker's opinion of future. "Might", "may", "could", "shall", "should", "must" etc are also frequently used with a future sense. The reason that "will" tends to be singled out is because its modal meaning is more closely associated with "inevitability" than any of the other modes.
Furthermore, not all uses of "will" are associated with the future. Imagine the telephone is ringing and you are expecting a call from your friend John at 8.00. The phone rings at 8.00 and you say, "Ah, that will be John." Here "will" retains its sense of inevitability but has no future sense.
"Will" is used for future reference under the following circumstances:
- When making predictions about what we consider to be absolutely certain events: "The sun will rise tomorrow." (However if making predictions about less certain future events then other modals would be used.)
- In the second part of constructions which involve the first conditional: "If it rains I will stay at home." Although even this is an oversimplification as, in real life, "may" or "might" are equally, or perhaps more, likely then the fully inevitable "will".
- To make threats - though this is really just the first conditional. "If you don't do what I want I will tell the teacher."
- To make promises or give firm assurances. "I will be there at 8.00." However in this case intonation and the the use of the strong or weak form of "will" is equally important as the actual grammar of the phrase.
- When making predictions about which the speaker has internal knowledge, "You will meet a tall dark stranger."
- When giving opinions based on personal knowledge. In this case it is almost always preceded by "think". "I think it will rain tomorrow." "I think Liverpool will win the cup." (Also used to obtain opinions about such things: "Who do you think will win the cup?"
The weak form of will ('ll) is often used:
- When making a decision at the time of speaking, e.g. "Have you heard John's in hospital? "Really? I'll go to visit him." (At this moment it becomes a plan and any future references would use "going to". "Have you heard John's in hospital? "Yes, I know, I'm going to visit him."
The so-called English present tense has many uses - of which talking about the actual present moment is one of the least common. It is quite often used to talk about future scheduled events with the addition of a time adverbial. Typical uses include, "Manchester United play tomorrow" and "My plane leaves at 5.00 pm".
- It is used when future arrangements between two or more people are being referred to. For example, "I'm having lunch with my brother at 2.00 pm."
- More general plans and arrangements. For example, "I'm catching the 5.00am train."
Be about to/on the point of (ing)
If we want to create a really immediate future then we can say that we are "about to do something, or are "on the point of doing something."
For some reason, this particular structure does not often seem to find its way into coursebooks though students find it most useful and often ask how to create such structures.