Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

Talking about the Future in English

There are various ways to talk about the future in English. The goal of this lesson is to help you understand the following ways of talking about the future in English: 

  1. The difference between will and be going to
  2. When to use will
  3. Using the present continuous and time clauses
  4. Using the present simple and time clauses
  5. The future continuous
  6. Using modals

Will is a word that I often hear overused by English learners. Of course, when you use it, everyone understands that you are talking about the future. Thus, overusing will is not likely to cause a misunderstanding, but it is likely to sound a bit unnatural in certain situations. 

Will vs. Be Going To

Both will and be going to are used to talk about future predictions.

We generally use will for predictions that are beliefs about the future.

  1. I think you will enjoy this book.
  2. He will definitely get the job.
  3. I’m sure the Red Sox will win the game.

We use be going to for predictions based on evidence we can see.

  1. Look at those clouds. It’s going to rain soon.
  2. Your shoelaces are untied. You’re going to trip.
  3. You’re still not ready for school? You’re going to be late.

Only be going to is used to talk about prior plans.

A common mistake is to use will to talk about prior plans, which are any plans that were made before the moment of speaking. For this, we use be going to

  1. I’m going to see a movie tomorrow.
  2. She’s going home in July.
  3. We’re going to Alaska this summer. 
  4. They are going fishing tomorrow. 
  5. The boss is going home early today. 

In some cases, either will or be going to can be used. This is where things can become confusing.

The following pairs of examples have the same basic meaning. They are equally correct but for different reasons. Ultimately, it is a very subtle difference. 

  1. They are going to be here at eight. (related to a prior plan)
  2. They will be here at eight. (prediction based on belief)
  3. I am going to call you. (plan, intention)
  4. I will call you. (decision in moment, promise)

When to Use Will

To choose whether or not to use will, consider the situation. Below, you will find contexts where will can be used and examples to help you understand each situation. In many cases, there is more than one way to express a situation. I have noted some alternatives.

When can you use will?

  1. For future facts
  2. For predictions about the future based on feelings, opinions, or beliefs
  3. For spontaneous, quick decisions related to the future
  4. To express willingness or lack of willingness (offers, promises, refusals)
  5. To make requests/ask about the future
  6. For future conditionals

Examples of Using Will for Future Facts

  1. The election will take place in November. Also: The election takes place in November.
  2. We will collect donations after the event. Also: We will be collecting donations after the event.
  3. The company will cease operations in countries with human rights violations.

Examples of Using Will for Belief-Related Predictions/Conditionals 

  1. I will be there by 9:00 o’clock if traffic isn’t bad.
  2. Climate change will get worse in the coming years (if we do not take action now).
  3. He will lose the election if the rumor is true.

Examples of Using Will for Spontaneous Decisions

  1. I don’t have time to talk now. I will call you tomorrow.
  2. I don’t feel like cooking tonight. I’ll pick up dinner on the way home.
  3. I’ll answer the door.

Examples of Using Will for Offers

  1. I will help you study.
  2. I will do it if no one else can do it.
  3. I will give you ten dollars for that bag.

Examples of Using Will for Promises

  1. I will give you the money on Friday.
  2. I will be at the airport when you arrive. 
  3. I will love you forever. 

Examples of Using Will for Refusals

  1. I won’t (will not) be able to attend the meeting.
  2. I will not be attending the meeting.
  3. I will not tell you what she said. 

Note: We can say I’m not attending the meeting. when providing someone with information.

Compare the following two situations:

Q. “Are you attending the meeting?” A. “No, I’m not (attending the meeting).”

Q. “Will you be attending the meeting?” A. “No, I won’t be attending the meeting.”

Examples of Using Will for Requests

  1. Will you help me move this table?
  2. Will you please excuse me for a moment?
  3. Will you please sign your name here?

Note: “Are you going to help me move this table (or not)?” is not a request, but it is said in a situation where someone is not doing what you expect them to do.

For Future Conditionals

  1. If you do the dishes, I will dry them.
  2. If he wins the election, there will be big problems. 
  3. If it doesn’t rain, we will go on a picnic.

In situations expressing willingness or lack of willingness to do something, the meaning is very similar to being able to do something. In such situations, you can substitute can and maintain the meaning of the sentence.

Examples Substituting Will with Can

  1. I can call you tomorrow. 
  2. I can help you study. 
  3. I can give you the money on Friday.
  4. I cannot attend the meeting. 
  5. Can/could/would you help me move this table? (making a polite request)

Present Continuous for the Future

We use the present continuous (be + -ing verb) for the same situations that we use be going to – to talk about planned events and definite intentions. As you will see in the example sentences, we add future time words. In the context of a conversation, the situation itself helps us understand whether it is about the future or the present. 

  1. They are arriving at eight. 
  2. I am meeting him later. 
  3. I am going home after I send this email.
  4. She’s making pasta for dinner.
  5. He’s leaving for Spain tomorrow.

The Present Simple

We can use the present simple to express future time when we are talking about an event that is on a definite schedule or timetable. Similar to the present continuous, these contain future time words.

  1. I have a test tomorrow. 
  2. He graduates from high school in June.

The verbs arrive, begin, close, come, end, finish, leave, open, return, and start are commonly used to express future scheduled events and things on a timetable. 

  1. They arrive tomorrow.
  2. The play begins at six. 
  3. The restaurant closes at ten. 
  4. The mail comes in the afternoon. 
  5. The sale ends Friday. 
  6. I finish work at five. 
  7. I leave for Alaska next month.
  8. The store opens at nine.
  9. He returns tomorrow.
  10. Classes start in September.

The Future Continuous

The future continuous expresses an activity that will be in progress at a time in the future.

  1. I will be exercising from six to seven. 
  2. I will be talking to my mother at that time.
  3. I will be working in the garden all weekend.
  4. The baby will be sleeping when you get home.
  5. The students will be taking a test at the beginning of class.

Of course, we can also say, “I am going to work in the garden all weekend.” when we are expressing a plan to do something. It has the same meaning as, “I plan to work in the garden all weekend.”

Why do we use the future continuous? Usually, it is used to let someone know an activity will be taking place, and therefore, other activities cannot occur. For example, “I will be exercising from six to seven, so I will not be available during that time.” or “The baby will be sleeping when you get home, so please keep your voice down and close the door gently.”

Using Modals

You may have noticed that words like could, may, might, should, and would are used to talk about the future. We call these words modals. Let’s look at some situations and examples. 

Future Possibilities

  1. We could go see a movie tomorrow.
  2. It may rain tomorrow.
  3. It might snow tonight. 
  4. She might not be able to come to class.
  5. The restaurant should be busy on Saturday.

Polite Requests

  1. Could you help me tomorrow?
  2. Would you mind giving me a hand?
  3. Would you help me when you have time?

to give someone a hand: to help someone

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I only recommend trusted resources. The links below are to free lessons.

5-minute lesson: Modal Helping Verbs In English

15-minute lesson: Modal Verbs In English: Deduction

Making Wishes about the Future

  1. I wish it would stop raining. 
  2. I wish she would call. 
  3. I wish we could go on vacation.

Unreal Situations

  1. What would you do if you didn’t have to work tomorrow? 
  2. I would sleep in. Then I would read for an hour. After that I would go on a hike. 

I hope these examples help clarify the many ways you can talk about the future in English! Ready to test your understanding?

Talking about the future

Test your knowledge with this quiz.

Never stop learning!
~Trey

Ready for more grammar? Learn about the present perfect next.