Speak English Like a Native: Future Time and Verb Tense
English Future Quiz
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English Terms Lie
Take the quiz above. How well did you do?
If you didn’t get 100 percent on the quiz, don’t worry. Not all the answers were wrong. They just weren’t the best answer. The weren't the answer that most native English speakers would give.
If you got tricked by the very first question, you won’t be alone. There are many lessons on how to form the future tense. If you ask a native speaker how to speak about the future, most native speakers will offer you the future tense. It’s called the ‘future’ tense! But English speakers don’t really use the future tense most of the time we talk about the future. Confused? One rule you should always remember when it comes to English: English lies. Just because something is clearly labelled as one thing, does not mean it is that thing. For instance, most ‘blackboards’ are in fact green, a public bathroom doesn't have any baths, and the present tense is used to talk about past, present, and future actions.
For those not read up on English terms, the present continuous (aka present progressive) tense is formed by the ‘helper verb’ to be, and adding –ing to the infinitive.
I am reading this article’ would be an example of the present continuous.
We use this tense:
1. to talk about something that is ongoing but finite (it won't go on forever). For instance: I'm running. This is an action that takes place over time. This action won't go on forever.
2. to talk about what is happening right now, or what will be happening in the future.
3. If you are telling a story about the past, you can make it sound more exciting by putting it in the present continuous. (I'm walking, right, and then I see a bear and it eats me!).
The present simple is generally formed by using the infinitive (minus 'to', plus -s for third person singular). It's usually the first form you learn of a verb.
For example, ‘I read’.
We use this tense:
1. to talk about facts or states of being (i.e. Dogs chase cats. The sun is hot. He has no hair.)
2. to talk about an action that repeats and will happen again (i.e. He walks every day)
3. to talk about something that will happen at a specific time in the future (i.e. I leave at noon).
4. If you are telling a story that is using present continuous, you would use present simple to talk about an event that interrupts an action. (i.e. I am driving home when an alien lands in front of me.)
The Present Tense: Telling the Future
The most common tense used in English, when talking about the future, is present tense.
Always use present tense:
1. For definite future plans (I'm going to England tomorrow. Here's my plane ticket.).
3. for schedules (I go to school at 8, I eat lunch at noon, I go home at 4).
4. for repeating actions that span past and future (I run every Monday).
Present tense does a lot of work in the English language. Both present simple and present continuous can be use to talk about the past, present, and future. Just read the grammar note to see how these tenses work, and when to use which when talking about the future.
This multi-use of present tense makes things both easier and harder for language learners. It's easier because all one needs to learn is two verb forms to be able to effectively communicate with other English speakers. It's harder because English remains complicated and knowing when to use which tense can be confusing.
Not only is it complicated, but there are gray areas. Look at the two sentences below.
I leave tomorrow.
I’m leaving tomorrow.
The first uses present simple. The second uses present continuous. Both are correct. Native English speakers are just as likely to say the first as the second. Why? We use present simple when talking about a future action happening at a stated or understood time. We use present continuous when talking about future action happening over an unspecified amount of time. The act of leaving fits both.
The action happens 'tomorrow' which is a stated time and so you can use present simple. The action is also a continuous action, leaving takes time to do. Therefore you can also use present continuous.
The only real difference between the two sentences is that 'I leave tomorrow' sounds slightly more dramatic than 'I'm leaving tomorrow'. It sounds slightly more scheduled. But only slightly. Another rule of English is that we like having multiple ways to say the exact same thing.
Which brings me to the future tense. Just because English speakers use the present tense the most does not mean that we don't also use the future tense.
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Grammar Note: Future Tense
The future tense is formed by placing the word 'will', 'shall', or '(be) going to' in front of the verb. Like present tense, the future tense can be simple or continuous. So the future tense of 'to run', is
I will run, I shall run, I am going to run.
I will be running, I shall be running, I am going to be running.
The difference between simple and continuous is the same in future tense as it is in present tense.
The Future Tense: Planning the Future
Why does the English language even have a future tense, if the present tense does just as well? The future tense does have its place. We mostly use it for three reasons.
1. Hypothetical situations: I think I will have a sandwich…or maybe a salad. Any time a phrase like ‘I think…’ is used followed by a future action, the verb will be in future tense. A good indication that a phrase is hypothetical are words like ‘if, probably, maybe, possibly, in theory, or I think/believe.
2. Facts or states of being that are not yet true: In two days, I will be ten years old! Never use the present tense to state a future fact or state of being. The most common verbs this applies to is ‘to be’, ‘to have’, or ‘to own’. Some words that suggest facts are 'I know, I have no doubt, or I believe.
3. Intentions: I will win the race! This is basically a combination of ‘future fact’ and ‘hypothetical’. This differs from making plans because there is more uncertainty. It’s often a way of saying what you want to happen, and hoping that saying it will make it true. Never state a future intention as present tense. Some words that suggest intentions are ‘one day, someday, in the future, or soon (at the start of a sentence, not the end).
There are gray areas. Technically, anytime you talk about the future, you are talking in the hypothetical because no one can be sure what will happen. Less technically, when it comes to schedules and plans, you are talking about definite actions that will take place. Some situations can use either future tense or present tense. This may change the meaning of the sentence or it may not.
If/when clauses are a situation that likes to use the future tense, so long as the verbs are actions rather than states of being (except for the state of being 'to like'): If/when (present tense action) then (future tense action). That said, there is a gray area. Sometimes, the sentence goes if/when (present tense action) then (present tense action).
Generally, using present tense says 'this is a fact that is based on past experience'. 'If I play the piano, my dog runs away'. You know this will happen. It has happened before. 'If I play the piano, my dog will run away.' You know this might happen. This is where the gray area comes in. It could mean you know this will happen because it has happened before. It could mean something similar has happened before. Or It could mean you think the dog will run in this one instance of you playing. This particular gray area works in English learner's favor. When in doubt, put it in the future tense.
Other gray areas are when it comes to making plans. Look at these two sentences.
I'm leaving tomorrow.
I will leave tomorrow.
Each of these sentences means the exact same thing. The first suggests firm plans. The second also suggests firm plans. There is a slight difference. The first suggests that the plans were already made. The second suggests the plans were made in this moment..
When are you going to England? I'm leaving tomorrow. Here's my plane ticket.
When are you going to England? I will leave tomorrow. I need to go buy a plane ticket.
The second also suggests a a fourth reason to use future tense:
4. Sudden Plan. This could be a solution to a problem (we need milk. I will go to the store.) or a request (Who will go to the store? I will!) It isn't included in the first three because it isn't a case of 'always use future tense' or 'always use present tense'. One could just as well say 'We need milk. I'm going to the store.' or 'Who is going to the store? I am!' or even 'I'm leaving tomorrow. I need a plane ticket.' There is a subtle difference between future tense and present tense, as shown in the 'I'm leaving' sentences...but it isn't a big difference. This is another case where you can use present tense or future tense.
Still confused about when to use the different tenses? I've made a helpful timeline tense chart below!
What time is it?
Verb Tenses and Time Lines
Ongoing action without end, fact, state of being, repeating action, action interrupting a continuous present action, future action at a stated or understood moment of time
Ongoing action with an end, action in the process of happening, future action
Repeating action that is no longer repeated, past action at a stated or understood moment of time, relating events in a story, past state of being or fact that's no longer true
I was playing
A past event that is interrupted by another event, re-creating a past event
I have played
A continuous but completed past action without a stated or understood point in time, a repeating past action that will (possibly) repeat in the future, an action completed in the immediate past
I had played
A past action that takes place before a simple past action
present perfect continuous
I have been playing
an continuous action that is either not completed or has just stopped or been interupted
past perfect continuous
I had been playing
a continuous action that is completed and no longer true, a repeating past action that is continuous and no longer repeating
I will play (shall/am going to)
hypothetical future, statement of future fact or state of being, intention, sudden plan
I will be playing
hypothetical future of continuous action, future action that takes will be interrupted by another action, continuous fact or state of being, continuous future intention, continuous sudden plans
I will have played
hypothetical future completed action before another stated or implied future action
future perfect continuous
I will have been playing
a hypothetical future uncompleted continuous action before another stated or implied action
command or request
Learning the Future
So what does all of this mean for teachers or students of English? If you are a native English teacher, teaching other English, remember that English lies and that the 'future tense' is not the only way we talk about the future. If you are not a native English teacher, remember that anyway.
If your students are beginners, start by teaching them present simple and present continuous.
Teach the future tense as part of lessons on the different reasons to use the future tense. For instance, teach it as how to tell your intentions. Teach it for if/than clauses. Don't teach it on its own just as a tense.
For more advanced students, you can explore the subtle differences that you find in the gray areas. Ultimately, the more you or your students listen to English being spoken or read English text, the better you or your students will be able to develop an ear for.
Listen, speak, play, tell stories, sing songs, play games. You will get more out of English if you do.
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