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20.06.2018
środa

Future tenses review

20 czerwca 2018, środa,

Are you ready for a grammar blog? Today I would like to discuss the very confusing future tenses in English.  Students rely very heavily on the key word ‘WILL’ as if it is the only future tense marker and a one-stop fix-all for all your future needs.  But imagine my students’ shock when I tell them that it is statistically not even close to being the most common future form.  The rules about how and when to use English future forms are extremely murky and a source of confusion for many people who learn English.  So let’s have a quick review of them.

© Mat Wright, British Council

DESCRIPTIVE vs PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR

Prescriptive grammarians tend to think of language in terms of very strict rules and describe the way grammar should be according to steadfast rules whereas descriptive grammarians are more pragmatic and describe what grammar actually does in reality among people in society.  They are more content to say things like: “Well I think officially the rule is X, but people often say Y.”

This is always an important discussion to have when teaching future forms because a lot of textbooks and websites are tasked with trying to explain a complex rule in an orderly and coherent way to learners who are trying to make sense of this language but the rules may not reflect reality.  Some rules with respect to the basic indicative future forms may look like this:

WILL

  • Spontaneous decisions

Oh. You’re bleeding! I’ll get you a tissue.

  • Expressing definite results

I WILL get into that university. No matter what.

  • Predictions

I think he’ll be late. He usually is.

GOING TO

  • Plans/Intentions – things that you have already planned in your mind that you will do

This summer I’m going to study English in Baths.

Present Continuous for the future (or with a future meaning)

  • Arrangements (usually made with somebody else)

I’m meeting Susan tomorrow for lunch.

The problem is that if we look at English in a descriptive way we see that these rules are broken quite often and there is a large degree of flexibility in regards to how future forms are actually used.  I don’t know if that’s good news or bad.  On the one hand I find any grammar exercise or test that checks these rules very difficult to mark because any native speaker could argue that in any real life situation it would be okay to use the ‘other’ form.  Take the examples above:

Oh. You’re bleeding! I’m going to get you a tissue.

I am GOING to get into that university no matter what!

I think he is going to be late. He usually is.

This summer I’ll study English in Baths and then I’ll just tour around a bit.

None of the sentences above creates any huge problem when I hear them being spoken by the native speaker in my head.  I think that they just make a very small change to the nuance of the sentence.  *I use nuance in this context to mean ‘the slightest variation in how the speaker feels about these future events.’

Native speakers tend to use the ‘going to’ construction statistically more than ‘WILL’.  That is not my opinion, it is a fact based on research and data collected by my hero Dr. David Crystal.  It is my opinion that the reason for this is because WILL is a simple, one-word future marker and just easier to use.

I suppose the philosophical ethos of ‘will’ denotes a kind of uncertainty whereas ‘going to’ represents plans, awareness and therefore certainty.  I had a university professor Dr. Anne Laubstein, who told me that you can even see the difference between WILL and ‘going to’ with your eyes.  If a TV show character asked a person what their plans for the weekend were and you immediately muted the TV so there was no sound but only the images you could see one of the following answers.

  • The character who was asked about his weekend plans shrugs his shoulders, frowns, looks as though he is hemming and hawing waving his arms slightly in front of him. – He was most likely using “WILL” (probably several times)
  • The character who was asked about his weekend plans makes eye contact and firmly karate chops his open palm several times as he confidently snaps out his answers. –  He was most likely using  ‘going to’ .

There are many answers to questions about your weekend plans.  This only serves as an extreme example of when WILL and ‘going to’ could be contrasted on sight.

I WILL get into that university! No matter what.

Does this example contradict the ‘certainty’ rule of the ‘going to’ examples above?  I don’t think so because here it is being used as a kind of emphatic exaggeration of a prediction we feel certain about.  It is also not talking about plans that we have formulated but rather about our strongest desires.

The fact that WILL can be used to suggest uncertainty or lack of planning can explain also why it is the main form used in conditional sentences;

I will go to your party if I have time.

If I see him I’ll tell him you say ‘Hello’.

As well as sentences expressing hope and possibility;

I hope you’ll come tomorrow night.

I think I will.

So in conclusion, learn the rules and pass your exams but please remember that it is very difficult to make really big, conversation-stopping errors by mixing up these two future forms.  Speak with confidence and the future (tense) will be bright.

Steadfast – firm in purpose, reliable

Hemming and hawing – hesitating in speech, speaking indirectly and with uncertainty

Murky – unclear, muddy

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Komentarze: 5

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  1. Thank you… I’ll remember that there are no rules and I’m not going to forget about it !-)

  2. ‚Native speakers tend to use the ‘going to’ construction statistically more than ‘WILL’. That is not my opinion, it is a fact based on research and data collected by my hero Dr. David Crystal. It is my opinion that the reason for this is because WILL is a simple, one-word future marker and just easier to use.’

    Sorry, but I don’t get it. Isn’t there a contradiction here? I may be wrong of course so could you explain please? If WIIL ‚is a simple, one-word future marker and just easier to use’ why ‚Native speakers tend to use the ‘going to’ construction statistically more than ‘WILL’? Beats me:)

  3. You are correct that the sentence is a bit ambiguous.
    I mean to say that GOING TO is statistically more used by native-speakers and WILL (because of its apparent simplicity) is used more often by learners.
    The original paragraph should have been more clear.

  4. I understand that it may be frustrating. There are a list of rules at the beginning of the blog for people who need or appreciate a ‘rule scheme’. They are quite reliable.

    The rest of the blog tries to suggest that in reality these future forms exist on a larger spectrum dependent on a deeper intention. They reflect your degree of planning or certainty about what you are talking about.

    It may also reassure you that not everything in English is so vague. Past forms, for example, are quite formulaic and most often reflect what happens in reality. Verb collocations, conditionals and several other ‘rules’ connected to English are extremely steadfast.

  5. super