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The future and the future seen from the past
  Lady sending an email

Siegfried Leistner from Germany writes:

Can you please explain the difference in meaning between:
I'm leaving tomorrow.
I'll leave tomorrow.
I'll be leaving tomorrow.
I'm going to leave tomorrow.

Thank you very much for your reply

Bjoco from Romania writes:

I have a sentence whose meaning is not clear to me: I was going to call you. Why doesn't the speaker say: I wanted to call you?

Roger Woodham replies:

I'll reply to the second question first.

You could say: I wanted to call you, Bjoco. The meaning is roughly the same although if you use wanted, the idea of the speaker's intention of calling is not so strong. Closer equivalents would be: I intended to call you / I was intending to call you.

The future seen from the past

Sometimes when we are discussing past events, we want to refer to something that was in the future at that time. In order to express this idea, we can use the past tenses of the verbs we would normally use to talk about the future. Thus,

is going to > was going to

  • I'm going to leave Britain to start a new life in Canada. >
    When I heard that she was going to leave Britain to start a new life in Canada, I was quite upset.

Other future verb forms change in the same way:

present progressive > past progressive:

  • We're meeting Jane outside the town hall at three o' clock. >
    We left school before the classes were over because we were meeting Jane outside the town hall at three o' clock.

will > would

  • If I play my CDs while I'm working, it won't disturb you, will it? > I didn't think my music would disturb her, but it did.

future progressive: will + be + verb-ing > would + be + verb-ing:

  • Don't phone them now, they'll be having supper.
  • I didn't want to phone them at that time because I thought they would be having supper.

future perfect: will have + past participle > would have + past participle:

  • I'll have finished writing up this report by noon, so we will be able to watch the tennis this afternoon.
  • I thought I would have finished that report by noon and then we could have watched the tennis, but it took longer than expected.

is to be > was to be; is about to > was about to:

  • The factory is to be closed down and all the work (is to be) transferred to Germany.
  • I was on holiday in Greece when I heard that the factory was to be closed down.
  • Please take your seats, ladies and gentlemen. The performance is about to begin.
  • We weren't able to finish our drinks. We had to take our seats as the performance was about to begin
  Now for your question, Siegfried.

Talking about the future

When we want to refer to the future itself, we tend to use the present progressive, future progressive and going to future for things that are already decided or fairly certain to happen:

  • We shan't be going to Glastonbury for the festival this year. We're going to Val and Keith's wedding instead. It's being held in a castle in Ireland.
  • I'm going to give the house a thorough clean this weekend. It's absolutely filthy.

We use the will / shall future for things which are much more open or have not already been decided:

  • What will you have to drink? ~ I'll have a cappuccino and one of those sticky buns.
  • I've got a hospital appointment this afternoon. ~ I'll come with you, if you like.
  • I'm quite worried about it. ~ Don't worry. I'm sure it'll be all right.

If you would like more practice more please visit our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

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