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The Meanings and Uses of the Future Tenses

The Future Tense

The future tense in English is formed with will or, less commonly, shall, plus a bare infinitive.

  • will see you tomorrow.
  • He’ll be back again next week.
  • We shall finish this off next week.

The Future Continuous Tense

The future continuous tense is often used to describe something that will happen in the future over a period of time rather than as a single action or event.

It is also used to describe things that have been planned or things that can be expected to happen because they normally do, in which case it may refer either to continuous actions or to single actions.

  • By this time next week you’ll be lying in the sunshine in Tahiti.
  • Don’t phone me this evening. I’ll be watching football on TV.
  • Will you be using the car this evening or can I have it?
  • The train will be arriving in a few minutes.
  • Tim will be leaving the office about now. He usually leaves about five o’clock.

There are important differences in meaning between the future tense and the future continuous tense.

The future tense may express intentions:

  • will see Jean tomorrow and ask her what she thinks we should do. (= I have decided that I will go to Jean and ask her opinion)

The future continuous tense, on the other hand, simply states a fact that something will happen:

  • will be seeing Jean tomorrow so I will ask her what she thinks we should do.

Similarly, with a negative, Michael won’t come to the party means that Michael is refusing to come or that you think he will refuse to come, whereas Michael won’t be coming to the party simply means that he will not be there, without suggesting that he doesn’t want to be there.

The future tense often expresses a command while the future continuous tense expresses a fact.

  • You will come with us. (= I am telling you to come with us)
  • You will be coming with us. (= it is a fact that you will come with us)

In a question form, the future tense often expresses a request for action, while the future continuous tense simply expresses a request for information:

  • Will you come with me? (= please come with me)
  • Will you be coming with me? (= is it the case that you will be with me?)

Be going to

Be going to is used to express what someone intends to do in the future, something that is being or has been planned.

  • I’m going to tell him what I think of his stupid idea.
  • She has told her boss she is going to look for a new job.
  • They’re trying to cheat us, but we’re not going to let them get away with it, are we?

Will and shall can also be used to express a future intention. The difference between be going to and will/shall is that be going to expresses something that has been planned whereas will/shall express a sudden decision:

  • I’m going to wash the car this morning. (= something I have been planning to do)
  • OK, OK. Don’t nag me. I’ll wash the car this morning. (= something I am agreeing to do at the time when I am speaking)
  • I’т going to polish the table to get those marks off.
  • Don’t worry about those marks. I’ll polish the table to get rid of them.

With not or -n’t, be going to may be used to describe something that will not happen or equally it may state a decision not to do something or even a refusal to do something:

  • I’m sure your father is not going to wash the car today. (= a statement about what will not happen)
  • I’т not going to wash the car today. I’m too tired. (= a decision not to do it)
  • I’m not going to wash the car today. I did it last week. (= a refusal to do it)

The same is true of will/shall/’ll:

  • I’m sure your father won’t wash the car today. (= a statement about what will not happen)
  • won’t wash the car today. It’s not very dirty. (= a decision not to do it)
  • I won’t wash the car for you. You never let me drive it. (= a refusal to do it)

Be going to is used to express what someone thinks will happen in the future, especially if it is going to happen soon and if it is the result of something that is happening at present.

  • England are going to win the World Cup.
  • I think the Republicans are going to lose the election.
  • Look at those clouds. It’s going to rain soon.
  • The boat was full of water. We knew it was going to sink.

Be going to is often used in warnings, for example, in the main clauses of conditional sentences:

  • If you get caught stealing from the school, you’re going to get expelled.
  • If you jump about like that, you’re going to fall and hurt yourself.

Will and shall are also used in the main clauses of conditional sentences:

  • If you jump about like that, you’ll fall and hurt yourself.
  • If we make a nuisance of ourselves, we’ll be asked to leave the restaurant.

Will and shall can also be used to talk about what is expected to happen in the future, but in this case the events being described are not expected to be in the near future and have no direct connection with what is happening at present. Compare, for example:

  • Our dog’s pregnant. She’s going to have puppies. and
  • One day our dog will probably have puppies too.

Note the difference between the present continuous tense, the future continuous tense and be going to when referring to events in the future. The present continuous tense expresses a definite arrangement:

  • am seeing Jean tomorrow. (= Jean and I have arranged to meet; I know that we will be meeting and Jean knows it too)

The future continuous tense and be going to, on the other hand, may describe something that is going to happen, or they may merely describe something that you expect to happen but without any definite arrangement for it to happen:

  • will be seeing Jean tomorrow. OR am going to see Jean tomorrow. (= I know or expect that we will be meeting, but Jean may or may not know; there may be a plan to meet, or there may not be)

Be about to

Be about to is used to express what is going to happen in the very near future.

  • You are about to witness a truly amazing feat.
  • The Queen is just about to arrive at Westminster Abbey.
  • You’re lucky you caught me. I’т just about to leave.

In informal English, not be about to is used to express what someone intends not to do or what they will not allow to happen.

  • I’т not about to let him tell me how to do my job.
  • England are not about to let Argentina take away their one-goal lead.

The Future Perfect Tense

The future perfect tense is used to refer to an action that you expect to have happened or state that you expect to be the case by some time in the future.

  • By this time next week you will have sat all your exams.
  • The next time you visit us, I expect we will have completed the patio.
  • will have learned some Japanese before I go there in the summer.
  • Mum hopes that she will have passed her driving test before she and Dad go off on their caravan holiday.

The Future Perfect Continuous Tense

The future perfect continuous tense is used to refer to an uncompleted or ongoing action or state that you expect to have happened or to be the case by some time in the future.

  • By the end of the month, I will have been working here for six years, (and I will continue to work here)
  • As of February 2002,1 will have been playing this game for 10 years.

The future perfect continuous tense is also used to refer to a repeated action that you expect to have been happening in the past and up to the present time:

  • It is time to answer the questions many of you will have been asking yourselves.
  • Many people will have been saying to themselves: ‘If the Americans cannot conduct their own affairs sensibly, efficiently and democratically, how can they be trusted to administer ours?’

Active and Passive

The description of the tenses in this topic has concentrated on the tenses in the active voice. The passive equivalents of the active future tense verbs are as follows:

Future Tense:

  • Active: will find the culprits!
  • Passive: The culprits will be found!

Future Perfect Tense:

  • Active: They will have eaten all the food before we get there.
  • Passive: All the food will have been eaten before we get there.

The future continuous and future perfect continuous tenses are NOT normally used in the passive.

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