F is for Futurity

4 03 2012

A video blog, in an occasional series on features of English grammar:

Appendix:

Relative distribution of different modals in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., and Finegan, E. 1999. London: Longman).


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42 responses

4 03 2012
leosel

Hi Scott

I am proud to be the first one to comment on your this time🙂
I’ve been thinking of my own presentation entitled “Does English have any Future?” for a while – if I ever get round to it I’ll include a couple of your ideas. Many things you mention – like Future Continuous being undertaught, the absence of Future as a tense in English – are valid points every teacher should bear in mind. But on your comment re using will as a rule of thumb – I would not entirely agree here.
Students tend to overuse “will” so, if anything, teachers should tell students not to use “will” because it’s the form they invariably fall back on. So I’d rather encourage them to use – at least in speaking – going to/gonna form which, although statistically less frequent, is more neutral in its modality.

Thank you for debunking all the myths.

LEO

5 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Leo, for being first cab off the rank!

Regarding my suggestion that – as a rule of thumb – when in doubt, use will – if I didn’t include something a little controversial in my posts, then no one would comment.🙂

But, seriously, from a probabilistic point of view, will is more likely to be right than wrong, and also, even when wrong, it’s unlikely to cause intelligibility issues:

A. What are you planning for your holidays?
B: I will go to the mountains.

Not idiomatic, but hey!

26 03 2015
emcfarland77

Hi Scott,

First of all, I’d just like to say that you are hands down what teaching English is all about. I am so happy that you exist in the TESOL world because I find that, as I develop as a teacher, I am naturally becoming more like you and agree with virtually everything you have said and written : )

I agree with your video but I agree with Leo. Even though “statistically” ‘will’ is used more, that still does not account for the contextual use of ‘will’ and wouldn’t suggest the rule of thumb to my students. In the example you give above, the two sentences are perfectly correct from a structural point of view but pragmatically, it is not as simple as just saying ‘you can use ‘will’ or ‘going to”. ‘I’m going to the mountains’ implies you have already thought about it and ‘I will go to the mountains’ is more an on the spot decision or promise to oneself. I am happy to accept the statistical use of ‘will’ throughout the English language but I disagree with the explaining away of grammar to facilitate teacher needs.

I live and teach English here in Barcelona. I feel like I am fighting against a huge wall of fossilization, as many of my adult learners (mainly Catalan/Castellano speakers) have been taught and have, in general, had bad experiences with learning English.

I’m sure you have absolutely no time for me and may not even read this post, I don’t know. What I do know is that Barcelona needs you Scott. I am here and sometimes I feel like the only teacher in the whole city who studied linguistics and TESOL as their degree and not philosophy, geography or English literature. I am in no way shape or form criticizing the many great teachers who surely exist out there but I am saying that there are many teachers here who are not fully trained in what they are doing and impede and inhibit rather than inspire and motivate. You have the power to really bring about a change, and move people in the right direction.

My main objective this year is to continue to develop teaching methodologies regarding ‘function’ vs ‘form’ and to further develop ideas about, how important the pragmatics of a language is when attempting to aid students in internalizing old (revised language) and new language input. This involves practical research into how adult learners actually internalize language and information in comparison to younger learners who lack the inhibitions, life experience and responsibilities adults carry with them. I feel it is extremely important not only to teach English, but also to give students an insight into English cultures, perspectives and within that, how native speakers think about and actually use their own language. Learning English is also about living the language and not making it a separate part of our lives. My students (at all levels) really benefit from looking at English from a more linguistic perspective as it enables individuals to analyse the pragmatic, semantic, phonetic, syntactic, social and psychological aspects of language as a global concept and gives them more reason to continue studying, as well as boosting their overall level of self confidence. As a teacher, I find it is my responsibility to adapt to my students and not vice versa, therefore I make it my priority to teach English in context inside the classroom whilst flooding learners with information about how to become autonomous outside the classroom.
(This is my teaching philosophy, methodology and whatever else you want to call it!!)

Thanks for your time and I sincerely hope you take my comment seriously.

The very best regards,

Liz McFarland
emcfarlandes@gmail.com

29 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the kind words.

Regarding the ‘rules of thumb’ issue, I still take the line that, as one scholar put it, learning a language is a process of ‘gradual approximation’. We start with a hazy idea – a rule of thumb, if you like – which, through trial and error, gets fine-tuned to greater precision. It happened in our first language too (there was a stage when all large four-legged animals were moo-cows). And even the distinction you make – between ‘going to’ for plans and ‘will’ for spontaneous decisions – is a ‘rule of thumb’. A quick search of the COCA corpus throws up counter examples, e.g.

I think I’m going to get ready for bed.
I think I ‘m going to grab a smoke. Join me?
I think I ‘m going to cry.
I think I ‘m going to give that just a little bit of thought.

French President Francois Hollande will fly to a meeting with German Chancellor Merkel tomorrow
We will see you online and again here tomorrow evening. Thanks for joining us.
Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP

30 03 2015
emcfarland77

I agree with your reply to my comment below completely (which for some reason I can’t directly reply to). I am aware of the many rules of thumb that could be applied to language and certainly apply many when teaching. What I should have said originally is that it would also depend on the group level or individual you are teaching.

I want to know if you agree with me. I feel that it is not just about teaching students the rules of a language and when theoretically used, it is also about being able to explain that in each particular context, the individual native speaker would have an array of structures to choose from depending on how that individual has been brought up in his or her particular environment among other various factors. I believe that from a low level, students (in this case adults) need to know this information. They need to know that they don’t just need to use will “when in doubt”, as sometimes ‘it would cause confusion’ in the same way as using going to would, it just depends on what exactly you are saying. So is it better then to treat language as context specific and investigating each individual case for what it is, instead of ruling the use of tenses into one category or another? (As, this over a long period would potentially benefit students ability to adapt to different situations whilst communicating without only having the structure will to fall back and rely on). Is it better when teaching a specific tense to not separate the different structures?, because ‘tense’ is ambiguous as it is tied also to ‘aspect’ and as you showed in your examples in your reply can easily be switched depending on various different factors.

Thanks again for your time.

(and by the way, it is an honour to be discussing my doubts with you!)
: )

30 03 2015
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your response. Regarding the question ‘is it better then to treat language as context specific?’ I would say yes, if that means always trying to relate the language we teach to some kind of recognizable context of use while at the same time showing the extent – including the limits – to which that context can be generalized. This was very much a principle undergirding the communicative approach: for function X in context Y teach language exponent Z. At the same time, we need to give learners a sense that there are two kinds of grammar- what R.A. Close called ‘grammar as fact’ and ‘grammar as choice’. Grammar-as-fact explains why ‘he went’ is acceptable and ‘he goed’ is not. That’s just a fact about English. Grammar-as-choice, on the other hand, covers those choices between well-formed utterances that create different effects: ‘I love it’ vs ‘I’m loving it’, for example – both of which are ‘correct’ (in that they satisfy grammar-as-fact) but the choice of which will have different consequences in terms of the way they are interpreted. This is why there are no ‘right’ answers to gap-fill exercises of the type ‘Tomorrow [he will fly/he is going to fly] to Budapest’. How we instill a sense of this difference (between grammar-as-fact and grammar-as-choice) is another matter. Students are understandably suspicious of the formula ‘it all depends’!

4 03 2012
Catherine

Morning Scott

Another excellent post. (The subtitles are a really nice touch) I especially encounter your last myth about the nearness of the future situation. I work in France and am constantly being approached by traumatised adults who don’t understand the difference between the ‘futur proche’ and the ‘futur immédiat’ … a particularly ironic situation, given that the choice of language to discuss the future in French is made along the same lines as in English. Future tense not withstanding. Sadly, the English language curriculum in French secondary schools appears to have been designed with the requirements of the testing and evaluation system uppermost in the minds of the men at the ministry (of education).

5 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Interesting, Catherine, and especially the point that French and English share many future concepts – yet the ‘naming’ of the forms actually confounds the issue.

4 03 2012
Pearson Brown

I am not sure I agree that ‘will’ is more common in speech. The problem with the statistical analysis approach, useful though it is, is that it tends to use very formal examples of language, even speech. I would suggest that ‘going to’ is used more in informal language than ‘will’ and is thus under-represented in the corpora.

Pearson

4 03 2012
Adam Simpson

Depends which corpus you use.

4 03 2012
leosel

I just wanted to relate to your comment, Pearson – hope you don’t mind. There is something in your claim that corpus tends to include more formal samples of language but nonetheless the number of occurences of “will” by fat outweigh other future forms even in speech – I did my own analysis of the spoken sub-corpus of BNC for one of my MA papers. The problem is when you look at the instances of “will” you see that they all indicate certain modality, most commonly prediction.
LEO

4 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Pearson, and – as Adam suggests, a corpus is only as good as the texts that comprise it. My data were taken from the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al, 1999), based on a corpus of over 40m words of text, 4m words of which is unscripted conversation, with another 6m or so of ‘non-conversational speech’, all recorded post 1980.

I’ve posted the bar-graph (from p. 496 of this grammar) in the main post window above, which shows how will and going to compare in two registers. conversation and academic prose. The authors make the point (p. 495) that (in conversation) ‘be going to is particularly common marking volition but less commonly used to mark prediction’ and add that ‘one striking observation is the heavily biased distribution of be going to, which is many times more frequent in conversation than in academic prose’.(ibid.)

4 03 2012
Adam Simpson

This would make birlliant viewing for anyone doing the CELTA. So many people get the teaching of futurity utterly wrong. For instance, in Turkish high schools, the way of dealing with the differences between ‘will’ and ‘going to’ are dealt with, as you suggest, by ascribing the use of one form for things that will happen in the near future while more distant events are said to use the other. Grrr…

Anyhows, for anyone interested, Geoffrey Leech does great work with corpora in analyzing the changing use of ways of expressing futurity. One thing he discovered, which will be a surprise to many, is that as recently as the 1950s ‘be’ plus ‘infinitive’ was the most common way of describing future actions (‘I am to visit the dentist tomorrow’), in British English at least. He suggests that it isn’t impossible for such grammar to eventually ‘lexicalize’ itself. By this, I mean that we may end up with a definite future form of English verbs, something along the lines of ‘I’m *gonnago* to the bathroom’ in which ‘going to’ completes its transformation into ‘gonna’ and attaches itself to the verb. Interesting stuff, eh?

4 03 2012
Steve Kirk (@stiiiv)

Thanks Adam. Your last point here reminded me of Scott’s post a few weeks ago, on C is for Construction – since Leech’s idea of ‘lexicalisation’ is given further credence and support from usage based views of language acquisition. In an emergentist account, the two utterances ‘I will get the door’ and ‘I’ll get the door’ would be seen as containing two different constructions expressing futurity: [SUBJ will VP] and [SUBJ ‘ll VP]. The second is not seen as ‘an elided form’ of the first – for precisely the reasons you allude to. Since the two are different forms, they (historically) begin to become associated with slightly differing usage. This leads to what emergentists call, if I remember rightly, ‘pragmatic strengthening’ and an eventual separation of the constructions (though clearly remaining strongly related semantically). This is important for teaching, potentially, since it suggests we should teach these two forms separately, and not as one being derived from the other. Though the LGSWE bar chart above does not show the distinction, I would guess that it is the [I’ll VP] construction that is the more common use of ‘will’ in speech.

If we take utterances of the type ‘I’ll do it’ as the unmarked form of the two in speaking, it actually helps explain the differences – since by using the unelided construction, the original full form ‘will’ is given more weight (it is phonetically, and thus to a listener perceptually, more salient) and this gives learners a rationale for why ‘I will do it’ can sound more resolved, determined, etc. The emphatic word stress we can layer in over the top in the separated form also gives us an extra way to reinforce this meaning.

4 03 2012
Adam Simpson

As an aside, Google have a really cool N-gram viewer which enables you to play around with whatever language item you choose and see how its use has changed over a given period of time:

http://books.google.com/ngrams

This is a great way to pique interest in corpus data.

5 03 2012
Richard Ingate

Thanks for the link to the ngram viewer, this is new to me.

4 03 2012
Kevin Stein

Hi Scott and thanks for some more things to mull over before I start classes again tomorrow.

In Japan, rules of thumb are often taught as “The Rules.” This often means that exploding a myth can take an enormous amount of time and energy. I have always felt that “going to” and “will” have a much more ambiguous relationship with futurity than how they are presented in a typical junior high school class in Japan, where “going to” is strongly equated with events that are more sure to happen and are more likely to take place in the immediate future. Your clear explanation will certainly be of great use to me and my students. And I will have my corpus info ready to go for when students shoot me strange looks or threaten to bring their well thumbed middle school English text book to the next class.

But I guess the minute I see it as a tussle of fixing their English, I’ve put myself in an unwinnable situation. When a students says to me, “present progressive is for future events that are sure to take place, right?” they aren’t asking a question. They are seeking reassurance that what they know is valid. And probably the best thing I could say at that point is, “Well, why don’t we take a look at what language in use has to say about that.” At that point I could help the student learn how to use the tools they need to find and decide for themselves what might be right in a given situation. Probably a better use of my time that trying to chip away at years of institutional learning.

Thanks again,

Kevin

5 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kevin … and your comment flags the point that ‘rules’, in themselves have less heuristic value – perhaps – than exemplars. That is to say, if students learned prototypical expressions for different future situations, these might offer a better ‘lever’ into expressing futurity, generally. Think of such formulaic constructions as:

I’ll see/call you tomorrow.
It’s gonna rain.
What’ll it be?
When does it start/leave/open…?
I’m gonna be late.
That’ll do.
When are you free?
It’s not gonna work…
etc
etc

10 03 2012
Anthony Gaughan

Are you making an argument here for ignoring futurity as grammar (at least initially) and teaching it as lexis? As you make the point that the adverbials do the grammatical heavy lifting here, this idea has some appeal…

The notion of willed vs. predicted is interesting as this hadn’t struck me as a polar opposite (which is what many of us look for in an either/or rule). On which side of that fence would you place the following classic:

“Oh no, I think I’m going to faint"
vs.
"Oh no, I think he’s going to faint”

PS: And just to prove your final point was absolutely spot on: I’ll be treating you to a glass of wine in Glasgow, I hope😉

11 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Anthony – and your point about willed vs predicted situations being a slippery distinction (as illustrated in your examples) explains – I think – why so many of the instances of will in the LGWSE data are labelled ‘ambiguous’. The authors of that tome in fact say as much “The distinction between volition and prediction is often blurred” (p. 496).

Which is not surprising, if you think of will as being polysemic, i.e. one word form with several (related, even overlapping) meanings. As Joan Bybee (2010) reminds us, about the history of will: “It came from a verb meaning ‘want’,and acquired intention uses by inference… A further inference from some cases of intention is prediction. That is, what the subject intends to do, one can predict that he or she will do. Prediction is an assertion about future time; thus when the speaker asserts that someone has an intention, the hearer can infer (not always correctly, of course) that the speaker is also predicting what the subject will do” (p.174).

(Bybee, J. 2010. Language, usage and cognition, Cambridge University Press)

As for your question: ‘Should we teach futurity lexcially (initially)?’, I am tempted to answer that we should teach everything lexically, initially, especially if we take lexical to mean not just words but constructions embedding those words.

And I’ll be taking you up on that offer of a drink!

4 03 2012
eslnotes

very interesting video blog.
a question – is the corpus based in British English, i did a quick and dirty search of will and go on COCA and they seem comparable?

4 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

The LGSWE is based mainly on British Engish (BrE) data – but there is a sub-corpus of 8m words of American English (AmE), for comparison purposes.

This shows that will is marginally more frequent in BrE conversation than in AmE, and, conversely, that going to is more frequent in AmE. But instances of will still outnumber instances of going to, in both varieties, by approximately 2:1 in conversation, and 5:1 in fiction.

4 03 2012
dalecoulter

An excellent post, Scott, thank you. A part of your video that resonates with me is the teaching of ‘will be +ing’ – it can be the pièce de résistance in a speaker’s English.

In addition to Leo’s point on using ‘going to’ as a fall-back form – which I also advocate as how ‘not to be wrong’ – two other points spring to mind regarding futurity. Firstly, that of co-text, as Scott pointed out. Given the highly ambiguous nature of will’s modality, co-textual chunks like “I’ll probably finish this off tomorrow”, “We’ll be leaving in a few minutes”, “I’m definitely going out tonight” seem to be helpful to students, who inevitably get bogged down by volition, plan already made in the past, prediction; adverbials often carry more meaning than the form.

On another note, I tend to discourage will at lower levels on the grounds that students have a tendency to use the full (non-contracted) form with little co-text. The result makes them sound very ambiguous and somewhat difficult to understand. In this case, again, opting for ‘going to’ reduces the ambiguity.

Dale

4 03 2012
cindyhauert

OK, but aren’t a lot of those “will” uses more modality than simply referring to a future time? For example, promises: “Darling, I’ll always love you…” or “Don’t worry, I’ll sort it out” and so on.
Or conditionals: “I’ll cook if you wash up”
It always sounds really odd to me when learners say things like “I will go on holiday next week” as if they are going by hook or crook instead of just stating a fact…
I have sometimes told learners to fall back on a default structure, based on frequncy, but here I’m not so sure it would be the best thing to do.

5 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Cindy, you’re right, that a lot of the examples of will in the LGSWE data-base are volitional rather than predictive – but even more of them are ambiguous, given it’s often the case that the distinction between a wish and a prediction can blur, especially when we are talking about ourselves: I’ll always love you is a case in point. And this goes back to the etymology of will, which started life as a lexical verb in it’s own right, meaning roughly want, (a meaning it still retains in German, I don’t need to tell you!) before being co-opted – and grammaticised – to make predictions.

4 03 2012
Almagro

Thanks for the post, Scott.

a) It seems to me that EFL students also perceive the form ‘have to’ as being a very productive element in the futurity equation in terms of willingness, nearness, and likelihood, much more fallen back on than ‘will’, and as frequently used as ‘going to’. Is it connected to different stages of interlanguage, different levels of strategic competence perhaps? A contribution of English as a Lingua Franca?

b) What if we mixed up your examples with the same attitude adverbial? Let me suggest a quick survey among your bloggers: how would teachers rate them (being 5 the highest degree of) in terms of nearness, likelihood, prediction, and willingness once we neutralize the co-text? This is the kind of question that students normally challenge us with:

-I’m definitely passing this test this semester
-I’m definitely going to pass this test this semester
-I’ll definitely pass this test this semester
-I will definitely pass this test this semester
-I will be definitely passing this test this semester

It would be interesting to analyze whether NESTs and NNESTs share the same futurity perceptions.

Thanks.

5 03 2012
Josh Kurzweil

Hi Scott,
Really enjoyed this post, and it made me think a lot about how we help students sort out the future tenses. I was particularly interested in the last part about under-representing the ‘will + _____-ing’ and was wondering if you could offer some more ideas about how to teach that. I’ve noticed that many reference books and course books focus on the meaning of that structure as talking about something that is in progress at a future time. Ex. “I’ll be working when you get to the house.” However, there seems to be much less about the ‘matter of course’ meaning/usage such as “They’ll be leaving on Thursday.” I wonder if that usage accounts more for the high frequency of use.

Are there contexts or shortcuts that you use to help students clarify and use the future progressive? Likewise, are there any books that you have seen with good exercises?

You also mentioned the example “It’ll be raining tomorrow.” How would you help students distinguish that utterance from “It will rain tomorrow.” Is it connected to the ‘matter of course’ meaning?

Martin Parrot in “Grammar for English Language Teachers” offers this explanation,”We also use the future continuous forms as a very neutral way of referring to the future, when we want to avoid suggesting anything about intention, arrangement, prediction or willingness, e.g. ‘They’ll be bringing the children.'” He also says that it can be used to reassure “…people that we are not putting ourselves out (or someone else) out. ‘She’ll be going there anyway.” (p. 173) This makes me wonder if the addition of the -ing has a kind of softening effect. Look forward to hearing your and other readers’ comments.

Thanks!
Josh

5 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Josh, for the comment. yes, it’s generally accepted that the will be -ing form leeches any sense of volition out of the utterance, making it less assertive, hence it’s use by airline pilots: We will be landing in ten minutes. (Compare: We will land in ten minutes). It therefore makes a less face-threatening response to a request, in that no effort on the part of the requestee need be inferred:

A. Do you think you could get some potatoes?
B. Sure, I’ll be going to the market.

(cf: Sure, I’ll go to the market. Or Sure, I’m going to go to the market)

As for teaching ideas – I think this one (of requests and their responses) is a good context. But also the classic information gap, when two people are comparing their diaries in order to arrange a meeting:

On Tuesday morning I’ll be working from home. On Wednesday I’ll be travelling…. What will you be doing on Thursday? etc

6 03 2012
Josh Kurzweil

Thanks, Scott! These examples and ideas for exercises are really helpful!

5 03 2012
Declan Cooley

Grammar for breakfast – lovely !

I agree with Leo that students tend to overuse “will” – I think due to their longing for a one-to-one correspondence between meaning and form as well as possible analogy to their own language where there may be only one future form. This use of ‘will’ can get so fossilized as to almost beyond susceptibility to change – old habits die hard. I agree also with the pedagogical strategy of teaching ‘gonna’ as a countervailing force to this trend – which in any case may be closer to the actual usage, given what Steve has said about use of ‘ll vs. will and Biber’s quote saying ‘be going to is particularly common marking volition but less commonly used to mark prediction’ that you found Scott.

I also agree with Dale’s point – noting that rather tall bar indicating huge numbers of instances of ‘ambiguous’ uses of will – I would say that this is the semantic/pragmatic jungle which students can often get lost in and end up not communicating what was intended. [This ambiguity is often exploited by politicians etc., as we know].

Moving on to lexical issues (the power of adverbials is particularly strong – we can respond to an enquiry about the future with “probably” without having to form a sentence at all for example], the use of verbs like ‘want to’ ‘plan to’ ‘hope to’ can often work for students as a strategy for expressing themselves without reaching into the bag of grammar forms – and also sound very well-spoken.

Lastly, I once made a jumbled informal list of lexical forms (adjectives, nouns, verbs] whose definitions are entangled with the future and I copy-paste them here so others may rummage around them – I notice that TV presenters often use things like :”Next !” / “Coming up:…” so some of these may be restricted in register.

 on the verge of
 on the point of
 be about to
 be close to …ing
 I plan to…
 I aim to…
 I intend to…
 My plan is to…
 My intention is to…
 I mean to…
 I’ve decided to
 I’m determined to
 be due to
 the time is fast approaching when
 on the cards
 in the pipeline
 up and coming
 coming up soon
 impending [doom]
 imminent
 in store
 bode well/ill
 come spring,
 be destined to/for
 forsee
 on the horizon
 lined up
 slated
 have a great/bright/brilliant etc future
 The economic outlook is better
 potential customer
 prospective candidate
 the future of the network

5 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Great list, Declan! But you omit one of my favourites: in the offing!

Also, you may know – or be interested to know – that the phrase by and by has become grammaticalised, in Tok Pisin, to form a grammatical exponent of future intention (bai m bai), thus: Ating bai mi go long market nau (I think I will go to the market now). (Source: Bybee, J. 2010. Language, usage and cognition, Cambridge Unviersity Press)

5 03 2012
Declan Cooley

P.S. of course here also lots of prepositional phrases acting as adverbials along with frames, chunks, idiomatic phrases etc

6 03 2012
Stephanie Ashford

And here’s a favourite of politicians:

“going forward”

(It sets my teeth on edge….)

6 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

“Going forward” – yes of course, and not just a favourite of politicans. Your teeth may be on edge, Stephanie, but I’d say, going forward, that this is one that’s here to stay, and may even become grammaticised, just as ‘going to’ did in the 17th century (and which was a usage that no doubt set young Will Shakespeare’s own teeth on edge!)

8 03 2012
Delpha

Great video!

On the idea of telling students to go with ‘will’, I think it’s definitely sound advice only if the student request advice on what to do when in doubt. However, it seems to be that many of us teachers are just offended by the ubiquitous “I will go to the mountains this weekend” response we get from students when we ask them what they *are going to do* this weekend. So, I wonder if it would be better to generally encourage learners to get in the habit of simply answering with the same tense that the question used? Wouldn’t that promote a more natural response to dealing with the ‘will’ vs ‘be going to’ pariah? Does that make any sense?

Another thing I’ve often emphasized in my teaching is that ‘will’ is used more often in functional language, while ‘be going to’ tends to *just* express futurity (planned or predicted). In other words, we can use ‘will’ to do all sorts of things things like make an offer, a snap decision, talk about routines or make a promise, but ‘be going to’ just can’t be used in these ways. So I ask them to try and think about what they are trying to *do* when referring to the future.

The area of overlap that seems to be most ambiguous is in the area of predictions, since ‘will’ or ‘be going to’ can be used without any noticeable difference in L2 communication. But the notion that ‘will’ has this functional strength makes me wonder is there is a psychological difference between will and ‘be going to’ in predictions.

I would love it if someone could comment if these two sentences seem to bear a different feeling.

a. You’ll fall!
b. You’re going to fall!

c. Obama isn’t going to win the election next time.
d. Obama won’t win the election next time.

8 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Delpha, for your insightful comment.

Yes, attaching exponents of futurity to a specific function (along with – perhaps – specific exempars, or prototypical examples) seems to me the best approach, (and one thing for which I am eternally grateful to the functional-notional syllabus revolution of the 1970s/1980s is that it encourages us to see syllabus items through these functional/notional lenses).

And you’re right that going to expresses future meaning almost exclusively, although that doesn’t rule out the sense of predictability it shares with will, which allows us to use it to talk about present predictable situations, as in ‘It’s midnight. Surely they’re going to be home by now.’ Also, note the use of going to by restaurant servers (aka waiters) in the US particularly: “Our special today is crumbed fillets of halibut. That’s going to come with french fries, and it’s going to have a salad of arugala and dates, and it’s going to be covered with an unnecessarily large dollop of congealed high-fat processed cheese…”

As for the difference between will and going to in terms of its prediction function, I think what distinguishes them is style, not meaning. I once did a search of the uses of going to and will in (print) newspapers, and found that virtually the only instances of going to were in the direct reporting of speech. Most other predictions were with will. This bears out the Biber et al (1999) finding that going to is massively more common in spoken language than in written language. Rule of thumb #2? Teach will for writing and going to for speaking?

At the same time, I would argue that maybe teachers need to get over their irritation at (spoken) utterances of the type “I will go to the beach on Saturday” (in answer to “What are your plans for the weekend?”). If it sounds a bit like foreigner talk that’s because it is foreigner talk. But intelligibility is not compromised in the least.

8 03 2012
Albert P'Rayan

Hi Scott

Since most textbooks for ESL learners are not corpus-based, learners use ‘will+verb’ to express futurity.

Albert P’Rayan

8 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Since most textbooks for ESL learners are not corpus-based, learners use ‘will+verb’ to express futurity.

Perhaps, although you could also argue that – through their exposure to written text – learners encounter many more examples of will than of going to, and assume (on good grounds, I would argue) that it is ‘the future tense’.

It would be interesting to quantify the instances of going to in a coursebook series, as opposed to will, and compare the relative frequencies to those in naturally occurring data. I suspect that going to is over-represented.

8 03 2012
Charles Rei

Response to Myths 4 & 5: Presentness is in the Heart and Aspect

I personally believe the future forms fit nicely into the overall feeling we gain from using various verb tenses. And once my students understand how and why we use the continuous tenses ‘going to’ and the present cont. for the future become quite clear.

As you stated in your article “Why is English Grammar so difficult (not)?” once learners understand what -ed, -ing and the past participle do to the verb’s aspect, a wide range of constructions become clear.

Therefore, I am teaching that the -ing form bring engagement and visualizes the verb. For my German students I use the word Engagement because in German it expresses this contextual meaning.

So, when teaching the continuous tenses, my goal to get the students to differentiate between flat verbs (simple) which state facts and -ing forms which bring the discourse to life, both in the speaker and the receiver.

It follows then, that future forms have the same meaning. When we use will, the students are expressing flat ideas and not showing any engagement in the event. However, when we use the present cont. or going to, this expresses that we are already somehow engaged in the event. We are thinking about it, planning for it, visualizing it happening, etc. When making predictions, the difference between will and going to is that the latter means the speaker is already visualizing the event.

Example…
I will go to Glasgow for a conference in a few weeks. This sentence has no life. It does not show any involvement, thought, or emotion about my trip. For the listener it serves no purpose other than to express that we will not have class.

I am going to Glasgow for a conference in a few weeks. This sentence shows that I am already somehow engaged in the trip. In fact I am assuming that discourse analysis will show that follow on sentence will reveal how the speaker is already engaged in the future event, such as “I’m looking forward to it,” or “I think it’ll be great hear about what other trainers are doing.”

This leads to my last point. I find most learners understand this concept of already being engaged in future activities. Mine tend to enjoy the simplicity of will for the future but then add all kinds of emotional construction to it to express feeling, such as I believe, I am sure, so I am very busy, etc. It is simply a matter of consolidating the meanings.

11 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Charles, for those practical insights. I especially like the point about -ing forms, and continuous aspect in particular, implying a degree of involvement or engagement. I’m wondering, though, how this maps on to the future continuous that I mentioned earlier, especially its ‘as a matter of course’ meaning (as in The plane will be landing shortly). Is I’ll be going to Glasgow next week any more or less committed than either of the other two options?

12 03 2012
Charles Rei

I can see the issue and I’m not sure how I would explain that to students if they asked me.

I guess I would say that the will in the sentence places the activity in context much like the past continuous. Essentially we are shifting the frame of reference. The meaning I would take from the future cont. is, I’m not engaged yet… but I know it’s coming. So the future cont. essentially becomes a ‘get ready’ message. Funny, when I think about this situation, I am envisioning trying to get my two little boys in their seats, putting away all the crayons and toys, etc. I would say to them, “Come on Lucas and Ben, we’re landing soon… we have to put everything away.” Back to the present cont. because I am now involved in the future event.

Using it at the start of a meeting would serve the same purpose. “Today, we’ll be discussing the sales figures.” means to me… we aren’t there yet, but starting putting together some opinions on the subject.

But I think it is certainly important to remove many of conceptions of time. I think the rules just get so complex that the learners cannot implement them fast enough when forming the sentences. This makes their speech and writing flat and overly factual. I like to show learners how adding these meanings makes their speech more persuasive, engaging, and concise. I am certainly no expert on grammatical rules, but I love your ideas on how to simplify and distill the meanings of the tenses.

15 03 2012
Liz Aykanat

Interesting point about engagement. I’d never thought of it like that. In which case, couldn’t “The plane will be landing shortly” in addition to being as you say Scott less assertive and threatening, in fact show the engagement of the pilot, as in “don’t worry chaps, I’m in control and will be taking you safely down”? As opposed to “The plane will land shortly – I’ve switched the auto-pilot on and am just popping out for a smoke.” ….

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