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Express the future - Jo invites Gavin to a party

Confusion

There is often quite a bit of confusion about how to express the future in English. For example, quite a lot of learners use ‘will’ too much or say that the difference between ‘will’ and ‘going to’ is that ‘will’ is stronger. Let’s try to clarify some of that confusion! Please read this short conversation between two English teachers and notice how they express their plans for the future. What do you notice? Please see if you can find the answers to these questions

  1. How often do they use ‘will’ to talk about their plans?
  2. How many different ways (or grammatical structures) do they use to express their plans?
  3. What is the difference in meaning between the different ways?

Example

Jo:Oh hi, Gavin! Just the person I wanted to see. What are you doing on Saturday evening? Do you fancy coming to a party?
Gavin:Oh, sorry, I’d love to but I can’t. I’m meeting up with a couple of old school friends I haven’t seen in ages. We’re thinking of going to the theatre.
Jo:Oh, well, that’s a shame – for me of course. It sounds like you’ll have a fun night though. What are you going to see?
Gavin:Well, we’re going to see a musical but we haven’t decided which one yet.
Jo:Oh, yeah? I went to see Stomp last week. I guess it’s not really a musical but I’d definitely recommend it.
Gavin:That’s an idea! We might well do that. I’ll suggest it to the lads.

Clarification

What have you noticed about the use of the future in the conversation above?

  1. We never normally use ‘will’ to talk about our plans! The only example of ‘will’ is in the last line and it’s not really a plan. It’s more reacting to the situation and making a decision at that moment.
  2. There are three or four different examples in the text:
    • I’m meeting up with a couple of old school friends… (be + -ing)
    • We’re going to see a musical… (be + going to + infinitive)
    • We’re thinking of going to the theatre… (be thinking of + -ing)
    • We might well do that… (might + infinitive)
  3. The real difference between the different ways is about how many details we have already organised and how definite we are about the plan.
    • I’m meeting up with a couple of old school friends” suggests the plan is already detailed and definite. We can imagine they have probably agreed a time and a place to meet.
    • We’re going to see a musical” is more like an intention. There are still quite a lot of details to be organized and we can imagine that in the end they might watch a film or a play instead.
    • We’re thinking of going to the theatre” and “We might well do that” are both more about possible plans. No real details have been organized yet and the plan could easily change or develop in the future.
  4. In conclusion, what is the safest way to talk about plans in the future?

Probably “We’re going to see a musical… (be + going to + infinitive)” is the most logical one as it gives us the most flexibility. The one situation where it is definitely best to use “I’m meeting up with a couple of old school friends… (be + -ing)” is when we are giving an excuse not to do something in the future, like in the conversation above between Gavin and Jo.

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