Talking about the future in English can be complicated. Everyone knows that ‘will’ is used to talk about the future, but some learners make the mistake of using ‘will’ all the time. In this post I’ll explain the most common uses of ‘will’, and when ‘be going to’ or the Present Continuous should be used instead. If you’re not sure of the differences or just want to review, read on!
Form: Subject + will (+ not) + infinitive
The main difference between ‘will’ and the other forms concerns when the speaker decides his/her future actions. ‘Will’ is used for decisions made in the moment. If the speaker has decided what to do at an earlier time, we use ‘be going to’ or the Present Continuous (see below).
Example: Everything on this menu looks delicious, but I think I’ll have the salad.
‘Will’ has many other uses – here are some more. Note that when we make offers or suggestions in the form of a question, we use ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’.
Example: You look cold. I’ll turn up the heating. OR Shall I turn up the heating?
Example: Shall we go to the cinema?
Example: I won’t tell anyone your secret!
Example: I think it’ll snow tonight.
Be going to
Form: Subject + be (+ not) + going to + infinitive
We use ‘be going to’ to talk about our plans or intentions for the future. Using ‘be going to’ indicates that we have already thought about the future before we speak.
Example: I’m going to see the new Star Wars film this weekend.
Similarly, if we ask a question with ‘be going to’ we are not asking the person we are addressing to make a decision now – we think the decision has already been made.
Example: Are you going to visit your parents this Christmas?
We can also use ‘be going to’ for predictions, especially if we have some evidence.
Example: This is Edinburgh – of course it’s going to rain today!
Form: Subject + be (+ not) + present participle (-ing form)
Using the Present Continuous to talk about the future is very similar to ‘be going to’. In many cases, either form can be used. However, the Present Continuous is only used to talk about definite arrangements or plans, not intentions.
Example: I’m not going back to my hometown this Christmas – I’m staying in Edinburgh.
I hope you’ve found this short summary of future forms useful! For more detailed information, I’d recommend consulting Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage or Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use.