The Future and how English speakers see it.

Future tenses in English

When we think of the future we automatically think of will. But this is really only part of the story. In reality, will is just the first step in our thought process about our future plans.

Obviously we do not know the future. The recent past is clear in our memory like a series of short films playing in our heads. We replay those memories and remember those things which happened. The present is what we see now. What is currently happening all around us or what happens in our present routine. The future for us however is not events we see but rather plans we have for events to happen. We see them in different ways, and different shades of clarity, depending on the level of planning that we have already made.

The first step is will:

The lowest and first level of a future plan is will. Will is the big bang! When you say I will do something you have not thought about it before. It is the birth of an idea and is a decision you are making here and now at the time of saying it. It is unplanned and spontaneous. It is the first step in your decision-making process. For this reason, it is often preceded with I think or I reckon. It is not a firm decision. It is not arranged or planned. It is simply you deciding at that given moment that this action will play a part in your future life.

Will only expresses your desire and nothing more.

In English, your last testament is called your will. Your will is also what you wish to happen. It is his will – it is what he wants. It is a desire for the future, a desire for something to occur. When you say I will do something you are simply saying that this is your desire and nothing more. It is your first step in creating your future plan. But like the big bang, it is a fleeting moment. From the point of will it instantly changes from being a desire to something more focused.

The second step is going to. This describes your intention.

This more focused thought is expressed with going to. The desire you expressed when you said that you will do something is now transformed into an intention. From I will do something you are now going to do something. The image in your head for the future becomes clearer. You see yourself on the path to that action. Future actions will drive it towards your goal. You are consciously open to achieving it. Young single people can say that they are going to get married one day and they are going to have children. The words express the path they will now take towards that future goal although in this case the when and with who is not at all clear.

The third step is the present continuous I am doing. This is when arrangements have been made.

The final step in future planning is to make solid arrangements. For example I begin my plan with a desire such as I’ll meet my friends this weekend. The will signals that this is what I want to happen. From that moment it becomes I’m going to meet my friends this weekend. I see the path which is in this case to contact people and arrange where and when to meet. This done, I’m meeting my friends this weekend – the present continuous tense. When you use the present continuous, there is the idea now that it is set in stone. My image has now shifted into something much more solid. I can see the place and the people in my minds eye. I may have hopes or fears for the event but the image is solid in my mind. It is happening.

Long term future and short term future:

One thing to mention is that for the short-term future, this week for example, there is little difference between I’m going to go to the cinema and I’m going to the cinema. We do not differentiate the two (in the short term) and native speakers will not think twice about whether the action is arranged or not. However, when we talk about plans further into the future we are much more likely to use going to as the plan probably has not been arranged. For example Next week I’m going to America sounds correct because it is likely that I have bought my ticket, reserved my hotel and got my visa as the action will happen soon.

However, Next year I’m going to go to America sounds much more plausible as this is probably just in the intention phase where it’s what I intend to do but without arrangements having been made, because the time is next year.

The difference could suggest a bribe!

Another example to illustrate the difference between going to and the present continuous is I’m going to get an A in my exam and I’m getting an A in my exam. I’m going to get an A in my exam sounds correct. This is because I’m simply expressing an intention or perhaps it is based on the evidence that I have studied really hard (going to can also express an observation that something will happen based on evidence seen in the present.

If you see a dark sky you say It’s going to rain). To say I’m getting an A in my exam would imply that somehow it has been arranged. Perhaps I bribed the examiner? If not that, then it sounds arrogant at the least.

To sum up, there are three basic stages in how we think about the future.

We say we will do something at the outset. This is the moment the decision is made. From there it immediately goes to I’m going to do something which signals that my mind has been made up and I am going to follow my intentions towards making that action a reality. During this phase of the journey I make external arrangements and the moment they become confirmed now I’m doing it.

I’ll have lunch with Teresa on Saturday – my first initial thought

I’m going to have lunch with Teresa on Saturday – It is now my intention

I’m having lunch with Teresa on Saturday – I asked Teresa to have lunch and (perhaps) booked a table. The arrangement is made.

An interesting thing about the short term future is that we generally know what we are doing, particularly if we live a life of routine (which most of us do). Therefore thinking about the next week or so we use going to and the present continuous a lot more than we use will. Will is only the birth of a new idea. Learners of English generally have the idea that will signifies the future, and it does. But only at the first step.

Auxiliary verbs – the signals of time.

Auxiliary verbs tell us the time of the action

Auxiliary verbs are fantastic little things!

They act like mini-discourse markers at the beginning of sentences, except instead of signaling an emotion or intent, they signal a time. That’s how we know when an action happened in a question or a negative form, by the auxiliary.
Discourse markers are words or phrases which prepare the listener for what is to come. Like if you’re driving and you see a signpost which tells you that your destination is 200km away and to the left. The sign not only tells you the distance and which way to turn, it also mentally prepares you for the journey ahead. It gets you thinking about whether or not you need petrol, if you need to go to the toilet. You think about when you will stop for a break, now or towards the end of the journey? That sign situates you within your journey. It offers you comfort and the power to make informed decisions. Signposts are important not only for telling us where to go but also for making us feel more comfortable whilst going there.
In language we use signposts too. If a teacher is talking to a student and says I read your essay. Unfortunately…. The student gasps upon hearing this word. There is a small intake of breath as they prepare themselves for what surely will be bad news. Can I be blunt with you? Another signpost. Whatever they are going to say, it’s probably terrible! They will tell me some horrible truth about myself. The answer to can I be blunt with you? is of course, always yes! As human beings we are naturally curious about other’s perception of ourselves. I’ve got some good news and some bad news is an old favourite. Which do you want to hear first?
Which brings me back to auxiliary verbs. They are words like is, was, have, do, will and did. They go with a verb and through them we know the tense. For example, if I ask do you walk to work?, you know that I am asking if you walk to work generally, every day, usually. Did you walk to work? Now we’re talking about a specific point in the past. But that’s an important idea. The listener must know when you are talking about if you use did. They know because you either say it or it’s implicit in the idea. If you walk up to a person and ask did you go to the cinema?, their impulse is to immediately ask when? They need a time because you asked did.

Auxiliary verbs are like little clocks…arrows pointing through space-time.

If I ask have you walked to work?, it’s not necessary to specify the time. Have you implies a time before now. Any time. Have you been to Japan? Yes? When? Now you talk in the past. I went three years ago etc. Have you been …ing? Again, the listener knows that the question refers to recently, to a time close to now. This is the present perfect continuous tense, a tense we use when we see evidence of an action. For example, I see someone out of breath (the evidence) and I ask have you been running? As soon as they hear have you been…? They know that my question refers to something recently and also to some evidence that they have spotted. If someone asks you out of the blue have you been sewing? You would most probably respond with why do you ask? You are wondering what possible evidence they see to ask whether or not you have been sewing.

In class, students often have a problem between the simple past (I did), the present perfect (I have done) and the present perfect continuous (I’ve been doing). There is no need for this to be problematic as long as you think about them in relation to time. I did requires a specific named past time. Either you say it or the other person knows exactly what time you are referring to. If you name the time, use the simple past and NOT the present perfect. The present perfect refers to an action which happened in an unnamed time in the past but has importance for now. Perhaps a message for now. If you say I’ve eaten, the message for now is I’m not hungry. If you say I’ve done everything to your boss, the message for now is perhaps can I go now?
If you name the time, use the simple past and NOT the present perfect
Having said all of that, there is a challenge for students regarding understanding the concept. It is often not the same in other languages and does need time to sink in. The good news (nice discourse marker!) is that there is a ‘eureka’ moment. A moment when the student suddenly gets it. It’s one of those really satisfying moments when learning a language which can be so frustrating at times.
In the meantime, learners need to be as aware as possible of those little magic words, auxiliary verbs.