How to get the future right: using present tenses to express the future

Some of my students recently asked me for a revision lesson on future tenses in English. In particular, they wanted to revise the ways we express the future by using a present tense. I decided it would be a good idea to post something here about it, too.

Present tenses

English has two present tenses: the present simple ‘I go’ (meaning ‘I go every day’) and the present continuous ‘I’m going’ (meaning ‘I’m going at this very moment’).

We can also use both these tenses to express the future.

The present simple tense for the future

This is often called the ‘timetable future’. We use it to express:

  1. future travel itineraries
  2. arrivals and departures
  3. starting times of meetings.

Here are some examples:

  • ‘My train leaves at 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon’;
  • ‘What time does the bus to Liverpool leave?’;
  • ‘The sales meeting starts at 11 o’clock’;
  • ‘The tour of the factory begins at 10.30 and lunch is at 12.00’.

The present continuous tense for the future

This is often called the ‘diary future’. It expresses:

  1. a future arrangement between people
  2. the type of things that we write in our diaries (appointments, meet-ups with friends, etc.).

Examples:

  • ‘I’m meeting my brother at 2 o’clock tomorrow’;
  • ‘What time are you going to the cinema?’;
  • ‘Our bosses from Germany are coming next week’;
  • ‘I’m going to the dentist next Friday’.

So, you can see that we don’t use will every time we want to speak about the future. Choosing the correct tense to speak about what’s happening tomorrow or next week can help your English sound much more natural and convincing.

See some more examples and try our on-line exercises, then let me know how you did.

See you in the future!

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.

14 Comments

  1. Rajindra Seneviratna - November 16, 2011, 8:57 am Reply

    Dear mr Cook,

    I am rajindra seneviratna from sri lanka. I am an Attorney at Law by profession. These days i am self studing english grammer for my IELTS exam as i am very poor in my grammer. SO……… ur SPEAKSPEAK website is very usefull to me. THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR THAT!

    Thanks&Regards,
    Rajindra

    • Stuart Cook - November 16, 2011, 10:44 am Reply

      Hello, Rajindra. I’m pleased that you like the site and find it useful. We have quite a few visitors from Sri Lanka.

  2. Tashi Gyeltshen - June 15, 2012, 9:43 am Reply

    This is really helpful..i do often face problem with use of these tenses…
    This post helps me a lot

  3. lucky - October 18, 2012, 5:24 am Reply

    Dear Sir,

    I read to this Exercise and I found . If someone wants to learn English than he should choose to this website . It will be good for him Because this Exercise will give him perfect knowledge about Grammar Tenses.

  4. Steamburn - March 20, 2013, 6:28 am Reply

    Hey this blog is very helpful!

    But I have a couple of questions.
    Do you know if we can use any verb with the timetable future?

    I was trying some examples but not all of them work.
    let me show you.
    The verb go is quite a hard one:

    I go to Germany tomorrow. (it sounds wrong in my head)

    but if I say:

    I go back to Germany tomorrow.
    or He goes back to Germany tomorrow. (sounds ok, but is it wrong?)

    What kind of verbs may we use and which should we stay away from using this type tense?

    Thanks for you time.

    • Stuart Cook - March 20, 2013, 8:52 am Reply

      Good question.

      Try to think in terms of timetables, schedules, itineraries, etc. The verbs we use to express these things will work in the present simple to express the future: go, leave, fly, start, begin, finish, change over, transfer, depart, arrive.

      Your example ‘I go to Germany tomorrow’ is fine, just as ‘I go back to Germany tomorrow’ is correct if you see it as your itinerary and you know the departure and arrival times.

      Avoid using the present simple to express the future when you want to speak about personal arrangements which involve other people. For example, we’d say ‘I’m meeting her tomorrow’, not ‘I meet her’. Likewise, ‘we’re going to the cinema tonight’, not ‘we go’.

  5. Victor - March 23, 2013, 2:46 pm Reply

    Hello,

    there’s a question that’s been on my mind these days and here it is : I know that you cannot use verbs of senses in the present continuous, but does this rule apply to present continuous for the future? For instance, can I say :” I’m seeing her tomorrow evening?”

    Thank you, and many thanks for your useful information on the English language,

    Victor from Belgium

    • Stuart Cook - March 23, 2013, 3:05 pm Reply

      Victor,

      You’re correct in saying that we don’t use the verbs of the senses (hear, see, etc.) in the present continuous. Sometimes, though, these verbs can act as synonyms for other verbs and in such cases can be used in the continuous forms. ‘See’ used as a synonym for ‘meet’ is a very common example. In your sentence, you’re saying that you’re ‘meeting’ her so it’s fine to put ‘see’ into the continuous form.

      This rule doesn’t just apply to the present continuous for the future, but to any continuous tenses.

      • AMINU MUSA MUHAMMAD - August 4, 2014, 10:27 am Reply

        Iam very glad to be among you these days.Beside, i was totally confused about (I were & I was).so, i need more explanation about this thing.Thank you once again.

  6. mora betti - November 16, 2014, 7:29 pm Reply

    what about the difference between the use of “goingto” & present continuous. By the way I’m from Algeria

    • Stuart Cook - November 24, 2014, 12:48 pm Reply

      Hi, Mora

      The present continuous in the future is for the type of things that we write in our diaries (appointments, arrangements). Basically, things we arrange to do with other people.

      The ‘going to’ future is for our own plans, often things we just plan to do or are about to do (as opposed to ‘events’ which we would write in our diaries).

      Compare:
      I’m having a birthday party next Saturday. [an arrangement, present continuous]
      I’m going to have a cup of coffee when I finish this email. [a plan in my head, ‘going to’]

      There are times when we can use either ‘going to’ or the present continuous, but if you follow the above rule you’ll be fine.

      A big hello to Algeria, by the way! 🙂

  7. iman sia - November 25, 2014, 5:35 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this awesome blog
    I’m a teacher of English at the middle school. My students are basically 13 years old. English is a foreign language for them since they only encounter it at school so I’m having a big problem explaining these fine differences between all the forms used to express the future
    You may not be specialized in EFL classes but any advice on how to deliver this lesson would be of great help.
    thank you in advance 🙂

  8. Anat Barami - November 26, 2015, 9:45 am Reply

    Dear Mr. Cook
    My name is Anat and I am from Israel.
    I am homeshooling English teacher for kids in the 4th – 6th grades, English is our second language and they barely (understatment) manage , your blog is most helpful. its great thanks for your help. But..(always there is “but” isnt it? 🙂 ) I really hope we will get to it .. there is hope..
    Thank you again

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