Thursday, May 23, 2013

Talking about the FUTURE

Some students ARE HEADING TO the Cloisters this weekend to check out some Medieval 
art. It's supposed to be a nice day, so they ARE GOING TO walk from the subway to the
museum to enjoy the weather. They'LL probably take a lot of pictures. A museum guide
WILL WAIT for them to show them around. Their tour STARTS at 11 a.m. What about you?
What ARE you DOING this weekend? ARE you SPENDING time outdoors to enjoy the weather? 

If you read the caption above, you probably noticed that I used four different ways to express the future: the SIMPLE FUTURE (WILL WAIT), the future with BE GOING TO (ARE GOING TO WALK), the present progressive (ARE HEADING TO; ARE DOING; ARE SPENDING), and the simple present (STARTS). Are you familiar with how to use these tenses to talk about the future?

When you study English in the lower levels, you learn there are two ways of talking about the future. There's the simple present (WILL + verb), and there's BE GOING TO + verb, and you're told that they mean the same thing, like the two sentences below.
  • I AM GOING TO MOVE to a new apartment.
  • I WILL MOVE to a new apartment.
Well, your teachers are right. Most of the time, the simple future and BE GOING TO + verb mean the same thing. However, there are some situations where one of them is better than the other. Don't worry; this usually doesn't mean that the other way is wrong. It simply means that one way is more appropriate depending on what the speaker wants to say. So if you're speaking, it all depends on you.

Here are a couple of things to remember:
1. Use BE GOING TO + verb if the subject of your sentence has spent some time making a decision. In the following examples, the subjects seem like they have thought about their decisions before making them.
  • They'RE GOING TO extend their vacation because they're having so much fun.
  • She told me she WAS GOING TO quit her job. I wonder is she actually did it.
  • We'RE NOT GOING TO move to a new apartment after all. We realized our apartment now is not too bad.

2. Use WILL + verb if the subject hasn't spent a lot of time making a decision or if you're just presenting your information as fact, such as in the following examples.
  • We'll be there in five minutes.
  • She'll call us when she arrives.
  • I'll be back.
Keep in mind that if you want to say, "She'S GOING TO call us when she arrives," instead of "She WILL CALL us when she arrives," it's not wrong. However, the idea of "She'S GOING TO" is that she will decide to call us, while "She WILL CALL" just tells us what will happen in the future. Remember, you can use either form to express the future most of the time; both BE GOING TO + verb or WILL + verb are correct. It often depends on the speaker and what he or she is thinking and would like to convey. 

Of course, some situations sound better with BE GOING TO + verb because they seem like big decisions, while others sound better with WILL + verb because they seem like actions that don't require much thinking or are just presented as information. Take a look at these examples.

  • She'S GOING TO spend the weekend in Montauk. [It sounds like she thought about this decision.]
  • She'LL probably take the Long Island Railroad. [This sounds like it is simply presented as a fact.]
  • They'RE GOING TO build a house. [They spent some time thinking and making this decision.]
  • They'LL call us when they decide where to build it. [They don't have to think about calling us; they'll just call us when they've reached their decision.]

    In addition to BE GOING TO + verb and WILL + verb, did you know that you can also use the present progressive and the simple present to talk about the future? Here's the deal: If an activity or an appointment is already confirmed or decided, you can use the present progressive. For example, if you say, "I'M MOVING to Alaska after graduation," it means you have already decided to do it, and it's definitely going to happen. Similarly, if you say, "I'M GOING straight to bed when I get home," you're also saying that you've already made the decision, and this is definitely what you're doing.

    Last but not the least, the SIMPLE PRESENT is also used to talk about the future when you mention schedules. The following sentences are examples of this.
    • Our train LEAVES at 3 tomorrow afternoon.
    • My class STARTS at 10 tomorrow morning.
    • The Fall semester BEGINS next month.

    There you have it. Learn and master the four ways of expressing the future, and your English will begin to sound more and more natural. Until next time. Good luck! :-)

    -- Joe Yu, ESL instructor 

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