Karen's Linguistics Issues, March 2009 | Previous Months

An analysis of expressions used to express future in English with a comparison
with Japanese future
 by Nick Delleman


The expression of futurity in English is one in which many foreign learners have difficulty in mastering (Wekker, 1976). The sheer number of different modalities, tenses and expressions that native speakers seemingly effortlessly utilise when referring to future time, frequently fills even the most experienced teachers and students with consternation.

Quirk (1985) and Leech (1987) regard the five most frequently used expressions of future time in English as being will, be going to, the progressive present tense, the simple present tense and will+ progressive infinitive. Swan (1995) adds be about to and be to and Nehls (1988) states that all modal auxiliaries, as well as hope, expect and promise, can also be used to express future time.

For Japanese speakers of English this range of possibilities causes particular problems as, as Thompson (2001) points out, Japanese mainly uses only one expression, the simple present tense, to refer to future time.

Due to limits of a paper such as this, I shall endeavour to look at just two expressions of future time, will and be going to, as it is these that most grammars of English, for example Quirk (1985) and Leech (1987), consider to occur most frequently, both in spoken and written English.

It is in light of this, that I plan to carry out a study into future time usage of will and be going to in English, looking mainly at how linguists view the two forms, how they differ from each other in terms of orientation, and in what ways conditions affect user selection of the forms. I shall go on to consider how Japanese differs from English in its expression of the future, and in the final section conclude my findings, giving brief classroom implications of their teaching, to aid learners in their understanding of this potentially confusing area of English language.

Will and Be Going To: A Discussion of Semantic Difference

Is there a difference in meaning between Will and Be Going to?

There has been much discussion over whether there is a clear distinction between the two future forms will and be going to. What seems clear from studying this discussion is that in some cases there is a semantic distinction, whereas in others it is more difficult to ascertain. Close (1977:147) states that in many utterances “will and be going to are free variants and it may be purely a matter of chance which one is chosen by the speaker.” Palmer (1974:163) supports this view, adding that there are almost no “demonstrable differences” between the two.

Haegeman (1989:293), on the other hand argues that “there is a clear semantic difference between [will and going to].” Leech (1987:56) agrees stating that the future forms are “far from interchangeable.”

Wekker (1976:123) points out that the incorrect use of will and be going to leads not to ungrammaticality but rather to a certain “un-Englishness.”

Taking a look at the following pairs of sentences, we can ascertain that under certain circumstances the two offer a very similar semantic meaning and can be interchangeable, whereas in others there are real grammatical and semantic differences.

1)      I’ll open the window.

2)      I’m going to open the window.

3)      I’ll open the window in a few minutes.

4)      I am going to open the window in a few minutes. 

5)      “I’m a little cold”  “Oh I’ll open the window for you”

6)      “I’m a little cold”  *“Oh I’m going to open the window for you”

It can be seen in sentences (1) and (2) that there is little notable difference, except in the fact that (1) seems “incomplete” or “elliptical” (Binnick 1972:3). In (3) and (4), the use of a time reference in the statements provides what Quirk (1985) refers to as a colourless neutral fact about the future, without obvious tangible differences. In the context of a short dialogue such as that shown in (5) and (6) however, there is a difference in that it would be very unlikely, and ungrammatical for a native speaker of English to use a sentence such as that of the second speaker in (6).

When studying various grammatical reference texts designed for use by students and teachers alike, one very often finds convenient simplified explanations for the various meaning and uses of be going to and will. One example of such coverage in Eastwood (1992), makes stark contrasts between the two constructions, frequently failing to identify if, and when the two constructions are similar in use or are interchangeable.

Some Contrasts in Usage of Will and Be Going To

The Notion of Present and Future Orientation

One of the more important and frequently cited semantic differences between will and be going to is the notion of orientation. Wekker (1976) states that will has its orientation firmly in the future, whereas be going to has its orientation in the present. Consider the following examples:

7)      I’ve bought a Japanese textbook. I’m going to study Japanese.

8)      I wonder if she’ll recognise you. (from Swan, 1995:214)

It can be ascertained in (7) that due to the buying of the textbook, the subject has already decided to study Japanese. We can see that in (7) there is an indication in the present about the events for the future. In (8) this same present indication is not referred to, and the sentence has a wholly future implication.

Leech (1987) and Quirk (1985) argue that the present orientation of be going to can be seen as having two more specific connotations; the future fulfilment of present intention and the future result of present cause. These two are illustrate below:

9)      I’m going to go to Hawaii next week.

10)   Look at the black clouds. It’s going to rain.

In (9) we can see be going to being used to state a present intention, i.e. what the speaker plans/ intends to do, and in (10) to state a present cause, i.e. that the present indications (black clouds) suggest it will rain.

But is it possible that a sentence can contain connotations of both present intention and present cause?

Haegeman (1989:293) suggests this is possible and uses the following example:

11)   They are going to get married.

This sentence she argues can be seen in two senses:

a)      they intend to get married, or

b)      there are present indications, such as the wearing of engagement rings, that they are going to get married.

She goes on to insist the following is therefore possible:

12)   They are going to get married but they are not going to get married.

This, she points out, seems to be an obvious contradiction, but if one looks at it in the context that they intend to get married, but there are no present indications of such, then it is surely a legitimate sentence one could use. She suggests that further context is required to distinguish the two uses of be going to.

Binnick (1972:3) explains that, as mentioned previously, will  “is often felt to be ‘elliptical’ if it stands alone out of context.” Could it be therefore, that be going to is also, in a sense, elliptical as extra context is required in order to fully understand it implications, i.e. whether it refers to present cause or to present intention?

Wekker (1976:127) supports Binnick’s view and adds that be going to is not seen as elliptical and “is complete as it stands.” If this were true, one would wholly understand what is implied by the first speaker in the following:

13)  A: ‘Anne’s going to have a baby.’  B: ‘What? Is she pregnant?’

The second speaker clearly needs clarification of what the first speaker’s connotations are. One can clearly see that a lack of context could cause confusion on behalf of the listener. One would not know if this was just a future intention or the present indication that Anne is pregnant. Further information is therefore required to clarify the meaning, seeming to indicate that be going to is also, in such a case, elliptical.

Be Going To, Will and Conditions

There are cases where will and be going to are very similar in meaning, especially when a time reference is used (see (14) and (15)).

14)   I’ll cook dinner tonight.

15)   I’m going to cook dinner tonight.

However, if one considers the following sentences, entirely different connotations are recognised.

16)   Come round to mine. I’ll cook dinner.

17)   Come round to mine. I’m going to cook dinner.

In (16) the cooking of dinner clearly depends on whether the listener comes round. In (17) however, there is no such dependency and the speaker will cook dinner, whether the listener comes round or not. Whether there are present indications or intention in (17) is irrelevant in this case, the cooking of dinner will happen anyway.

This fact that will is dependent on certain other conditions can also be seen in example (5). The offer to close the window is based on the condition that another person is cold. If the other person were not cold then this offer would not arise.

The use of will in (16) can also be seen in another light. Eastwood (1992:40) and New Headway Pre-Intermediate (Soars, 2000:134) suggest that will, in this case is used for decisions made at the time of speaking. Looking at our analysis for the use of will in these situations, is this strictly true? All examples given in both texts show that there is a dependency on another condition. This information is not given in either text, which could lead learners to believe that in all decisions made at the time of speaking, will can be used.

Consider the following utterance made at the end of a party:

18)   Right, I’m going to go.

This is a decision made at the time of speaking. In this case as it stands alone, be going to cannot be substituted for will. If however, a condition is given only will can be used.

19)   A:“I need some milk”  B:“Right, I’ll go”

This is based on the condition that if milk is needed the second speaker will get it.

One possible account that could be made in the cases of the two texts mentioned is that both texts are designed for lower level learners who, from experience, look for neat explanations of grammar usage. Contrast this to the explanations given in Swan (1995), Quirk (1985) and Leech (1994), designed for more advanced learners, and one can note the absence of such an explanation as that given in New Headway Pre-intermediate (Soars, 2000:134) and Eastwood (1992:40), choosing to categorise this use of will as dependent on external conditions.

Be going to can also be used in conditional sentences, however Wekker (1976) and Leech (1987) state it is far less common than will. Leech believes this is dependent on what was discussed earlier; present or future orientation. Consider the following examples:

20)   If it rains, I’ll take an umbrella.

21)   If it continues to rain, I’m going to take an umbrella.

Leech (1987:56) suggests that be going to can be used “if present circumstances are mentioned in the if clause,” demonstrated in (21). We can see that the use of the verb continue in (21) suggests that it is raining now. In this case be going to is perfectly acceptable. If the orientation in the condition is in the future, i.e. the temporal reference point in if it rains is at some time after the present, as in (20) then will is preferred to be going to.

We have seen in this section that the notion of present or future orientation is a prominent feature of all accounts of will and be going to but that, as will seems incomplete standing alone, a context, usually in the form of a condition, is required. If however, a time reference is used then the differences between the two forms are neutralised, giving purely factual information about the future.

It is difficult however, to study will and be going to using simple written sentences, as word stress and intonation can play an important role in determining meaning (Haegeman, 1989:298). Swan (1995:214) also notes that speaker knowledge and opinion can determine which form one uses.

These seemly intangible complexities provide us with yet more variables to be considered when looking at the differences between the two forms.

Futurity in Japanese

As seen in Section B the futurity in English can be express in several different ways, depending on semantics and what one would like to convey in an utterance. In contrast, Japanese uses very few different future time expressions. In this section the majority of information used to look at the Japanese language comes from the books Minna no Nihongo (Japanese for Everyone) and Minna no Nihongo II. Some information has also been gleaned from web pages¹.

In Japanese there is no future tense (W.P. a) as such, but Japanese uses two constructions to express future time. One is the simple present tense (WP a), the most commonly used future form, and the other is the addition of the suffix sou to the verb (WP b) to indicate future result of present cause, similar to that expressed by be going to in English. The latter is considered in the following sentences, which are translated into standard Japanese:

1)      Look at the black clouds!  It’s going to rain.

Kuroi   kumoo    mitteyo                      Ame ga   furi-sou    

                  Black   clouds     look (emphatic)          Rain        fall be going to


2)      She’s going to get married. She’s wearing an engagement ring.

Kekkon     suru-sou                  Konyaku        yubiwa wo tsuketeimasu²

Marriage   do     be going to.  Engagement   ring            be wearing.      

In both examples (1) and (2) when the suffix sou is added after the verb, it indicates that the statement about the future is based on a present indication. But unlike English, which uses be going to to express future for present cause and present intention, Japanese uses the simple present tense to express future fulfilment of present intention.

3)      I’ve decided. I’m going to buy a new car soon. (intention)

                  Kimetayo.        Mor sugu    Atarashi   kuruma o kaimasu

                  Decided           soon            new           car           buy

4)      When are you going to get married? (from Quirk, 1985:214)

Anata wa itsu       kekkon    shimasu ka

You          when  marriage  do            (interrogative marker)

Examples (3) and (4) both include the use of the simple present verbs kaimasu and shimasu, which are polite forms of the base verbs kau (buy) and suru (do). The latter can also be used in more casual speech.

[1] As some web pages do not give information on authors or dates, I have used an alphabetic system to reference web pages, which can be found under ‘web page references’ in the reference section. For example: (WP a) refers to reference ‘a’ in the web page references.

[2] In many examples subjects are omitted, as in Japanese they are very often derived from the context in which one is speaking.

The use of a simple present tense can also be detected for what Eastwood (1992:40) refers to as future for ‘instant decisions’ or, as discussed earlier, the conditional use not dissimilar to that of will in English. This can be illustrated in the short dialogue below:

5)            a)   I’m thirsty.

                        Nodo ga kawaita

                  throat      became dry

b)      Oh! I’ll make you some tea.

Jaa. (Watashi wa) o-cha o tsukurimasu

                        Oh!    I                   tea       make

It is interesting to note here that, in Japanese (b) can stand alone and would in no way sound elliptical, unlike it’s English counterpart which needs a context to be fully understood. In such a case the making of tea could be regarded as an intention rather than based on a condition. One can conclude therefore, that future intention and condition cannot be differentiated in Japanese by language alone, but in the context (or lack thereof) in which it is used.

Conditional sentences, using if-clauses, also use the simple present tense in Japanese:

6)      If I see John, I’ll tell him.

Moshi  Jon       ni          attara    tsutaemasu

If          John     with      meet     tell

Although English differentiates between conditionals containing be going to and those containing will, no such difference can be seen in Japanese with the simple present tense being used in both. This can be seen by comparing (6) with (7) below:

7)      If it continues to rain, I’m going to take an umbrella.

Moshi ame   furi  tsuzukemasu            kasa  o     motte ikimasu

                          If           rain   fall  continue                  umbrella  have    go

Conclusions and Recommendations

As we have seen, differences between the forms will and be going to are very often difficult to determine, due to the fact that exceptions can be found for most ‘rules’. This has to be taken into consideration when studying future time in the classroom. Problems that, from experience, frequently occur are often due to L1 interference. These errors can often be detected in the classroom as, for Japanese learners, they often result in the substitution of a present simple tense form for a future time form.

Correction of these errors however, is more difficult as many references to the future are dependent on the context of the surrounding information. This is often too complex to determine, especially with lower level learners, who may not be able to accurately communicate the context.

It may be necessary to consider will and be going to in a much broader light than the narrow ‘rules’ presented in texts such as Eastwood (1992) and New Pre-Intermediate Headway (Soars, 2000:134), teaching, for example, that will is very often used when there is evidence of an external condition.

Other problematic areas for Japanese learners could be their understanding of the use of will and be going to in conditional sentences, as Japanese speakers use just the simple present tense to express both. Also, the fact that English uses be going to to express present intention and cause, whereas Japanese uses alternative expressions, may lead to such seemly contradictory utterances as those expressed by Haegeman (1989:293) in example (12) in section B.

These variations and exceptions, some illustrated in this paper, that do exist can be introduced as the learner advances in English, by way of correction, more formal classroom presentation or self-discovery activities.  As the literature concerning the future in English is wide, it may take years of study for a learner to accomplish native speaker-like use of just the two forms studied in this paper, not to mention the other constructions that can be used to express the future in English.

The claims of Wekker (1976) that the substitution of will for be going to may not lead to ungrammaticality but to a certain ‘un-Englishness’ may not be an adequate explanation for  learners who strive for native-like English, but may indicate that variables determining the use of future forms may consist of a much deeper understanding, based on factors such as sentence stress and intonation, context, timing, subject knowledge and speaker attitude and opinion.


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Binnick, Robert I. (1972) ‘Will and Be Going To II.’ Proceedings of the 8th Regional Meeting Chicago Linguistic Society 8, 3-9.

Close, R. A. (1977) ‘Some Observations on the Meaning and Function of Verb Phrases Having Future Time Reference’ in Bald and Ilson, 125-156.

Eastwood, J. (1992) Oxford Practice Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haegeman, L. (1989) ‘Be going to and Will: a pragmatic account’ Journal of Linguistics 25, 291-317.

Leech, Geoffrey (1987) Meaning and the English Verb. 2nd ed., London: Longman.

Leech, Geoffrey and Jan Svartvik (1994) A Communicative Grammar of English. 2nd ed., London: Longman.

 Nehls, D. (1988) ‘Modality and the Expression of Future Time in English’ International Review of Applied Linguistics 26, 295-307.

Palmer, F.R. (1974) The English Verb. London: Longman.

Quirk, R. et al (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Soars, J. and Soars, L. (2000) New Headway Pre-Intermediate. Oxford: oxford University Press.

Swan, Michael (1995) Practical English Usage. 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swan, M and Smith, B. (2001) Learner English. 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tanaka, Y. et al (1998) Minna no Nihongo I. Tokyo: 3A Corporation.

Tanaka, Y. et al (1998) Minna no Nihongo II. Tokyo: 3A Corporation.

Thompson, Ian (2001) in Swan and Smith, 212-223

Wekker, H. Chr. (1976) The Expression of Future Time in Contemporary British English. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Web Page References



© Nick Delleman 2009. All rights reserved.