The going-to future is a grammatical construction used in English to refer to various types of future occurrences. It is made using appropriate forms of the expression to be going to. It is an alternative to other ways of referring to the future in English, such as the future construction formed with will (or shall) – in some contexts the different constructions are interchangeable, while in others they carry somewhat different implications.
The going-to future originated by the extension of the spatial sense of the verb go to a temporal sense (a common change – the same phenomenon can be seen in the preposition before). The original construction involved physical movement with an intention, such as "I am going [outside] to harvest the crop." The location later became unnecessary, and the expression was reinterpreted to represent a near future.
The colloquial form gonna, and the other variations of it as mentioned in the following section, result from a relaxed pronunciation of going to. These forms can provide a distinction between the spatial and temporal senses of the expression: "I'm gonna swim" clearly carries the temporal meaning of futurity, as opposed to the spatial meaning of "I'm going [in order] to swim".
The going-to future construction consists of the subject, a form of the copula verb be, the word going, and the to-infinitive of the main verb. (An alternative description is that it uses the verb go in the progressive aspect, most commonly in present progressive form, serving as an auxiliary verb and having the to-infinitive phrase as its complement.) It can be put into question and negative forms according to the normal rules of English grammar. Some examples:
- The boys are going to fight. (subject the boys + copula are + going + to-infinitive to fight)
- I'm going to try the wine. (subject I + copula am + going + to-infinitive phrase to try the wine)
- He's not going to make it. (negative form, copula negated with the addition of not)
- Are you going to bring Sue? (interrogative form, featuring subject–auxiliary inversion)
- Aren't they (more formal: Are they not) going to wear coats? (negative interrogative form)
- We were going to tell you earlier. (past form of the going-to future, formed with the past copula were)
The going to of this future construction is frequently contracted in colloquial English to gonna, and in some forms of English the copula may also be omitted. Hence "You're going to like it" could be said as "You're gonna like it" or just "You gonna like it". In the first person, I'm gonna may further contract to I'm'n'a // or I'mma //. (For derived forms found in English-based creole languages, see below.)
That the verb go as used in this construction is distinct from the ordinary lexical verb go can be seen in the fact that the two can be used together: "I'm going to go to the store now." Also the lexical use of going to is not subject to the contractions to gonna and similar: "I'm gonna get his autograph" clearly implies the future meaning (intention), and not the meaning "I'm going [somewhere] [in order] to get his autograph."
The going-to future is one of several constructions used in English to refer to future events (see Future tense: English). The basic form of the going-to construction is in fact in the present tense; it is often used when the speaker wishes to draw a connection between present events, situations, or intentions and expected future events or situations, i.e. to express the present relevance of the future occurrence. It may therefore be described as expressing prospective aspect, in the same way that the present perfect (which refers to the present relevance of past occurrences) is said to express retrospective (or perfect) aspect.
There is no clear delineation between contexts where going to is used and those where other forms of future expression (such as the will/shall future, or the ordinary present tense) are used. Different forms are often interchangeable. Some general points of usage are listed below.
- The going-to future is relatively informal; in more formal contexts it may be replaced by the will/shall future, or by expressions such as plan(s) to, expect(s) to, is/are expected to, etc.
- The ordinary present tense can be used to refer to the future when the context (or time adverbs) indicate futurity, and the reference is to some planned action: "We are painting the house tomorrow" (this could also be expressed with "... going to paint ..."). It is usually the present progressive that is used, as in the preceding example, but the simple present can also be used, particularly for precisely scheduled events: "My train leaves at 4.15." (See also the obligatory use of present tense with future meaning in some dependent clauses.)
- When the expression of futurity is combined with that of some modality, such as obligation or possibility, a modal verb (not marked specifically for the future) may be used: "We must/can do it tomorrow." There is also the expression am to etc., which implies obligation or expectation as in "He is to deliver it this afternoon" (see the following section), and the expression to be about to (also to be on the point of and similar), implying immediacy ("I am about to leave").
- The going-to form sometimes indicates imminence, but sometimes does not; and it sometimes indicates intention, but sometimes does not (compare "It's going to rain", which expresses imminence but not intention, and "I'm going to visit Paris someday", which expresses intention but not imminence).
- The will future is often used for announcing a decision at the time when it is made, while going to is more likely for a plan already in existence: compare "All right, I'll help her" and "Yes, I'm going to help her".
- The will future is used more often than going to in conditional sentences of the "first conditional" type: "If it rains, you'll get wet" (although going to is also sometimes found in such sentences).
- In some contexts the going-to form can express unconditionality while the will form expresses conditionality ("Don't sit on that rock, it's going to fall" means it's going to fall regardless of what you do, while "Don't sit on that rock, it will fall" means that it will fall conditional on your sitting on it). But in some contexts (particularly with "future in the past" – see the following section) the reverse can be true ("After 1962 ended, I would be a star" unconditionally describes what subsequently did happen, while "After 1962 ended, I was going to be a star" describes only intention).
The be + to construction
English has a construction formed by part of the copula be followed by to and the bare infinitive of the main verb (i.e. the copula followed by the to-infinitive). This is similar in form to the going-to future, with the omission of the word going. In the be + to construction only finite, indicative (or past subjunctive) forms of the copula can appear – that is, the copula used cannot be be itself, but one of the forms am, is, are, was, were (possibly contracted in some cases).
The meaning of this construction is to indicate that something is expected to happen at a future time (usually in the near future), as a result of either some duty (deontic modality) or some set plan. For example:
- I'm to report to the principal this afternoon. (duty)
- The Prime Minister is to visit the West Bank. (plan)
- Troops are to be sent to war-torn Darfur. (plan; note passive voice)
In headline language the copula may be omitted, e.g. "Prime Minister to visit West Bank".
Compared with the will future, the be + to construction may be less expressive of a prediction, and more of the existence of a plan or duty. Thus "John will go ..." implies a belief on the speaker's part that this will occur, while "John is to go ..." implies knowledge on the speaker's part that there exists a plan or obligation entailing such an occurrence (the latter statement will not be falsified if John ends up not going). The be + to construction may therefore resemble a renarrative mood in some ways.
When was or were is used as the copula, the plan or duty is placed in past time (and quite often implies that it was not carried out). It may also be used simply as a way of expressing "future in the past" (see the following section). For example:
- I was to visit my aunt, but I missed the train. (past plan, not in fact fulfilled)
- This was the battle at which they were finally to triumph. (future in the past, also: they would finally triumph)
The construction also appears in condition clauses:
- If you are to go on holiday, you need to work hard. (i.e. working hard is necessary for going on holiday)
- If he was/were to speak, it would change things significantly. (also if he spoke)
When the verb in such a clause is were, it can be inverted and the conjunction if dropped: "Were he to speak, ..." For details of these constructions, see English conditional sentences.
Expressions of relative future
The going-to construction, as well as other constructions used in English refer to future events, can be used not only to express the future relative to the present time, but also sometimes to express the future relative to some other time of reference (see relative tense). This other time of reference may be in the past or in the future, or it may be hypothetical or unspecified.
Where the basic going-to future is formed with the present tense of the copula be, its variant forms used to express such relative future are made using other tenses and forms (including non-finite forms) of the copula. For example, to express an intention that existed at a past reference point, the past tense of the copula is used with going to: "I was going to eat dinner".
A number of possible such uses of the going-to construction are given below.
- Future relative to past time: the past tense of the copula is used. This may express past intention, as in the example above, or past prediction, as in "It was going to rain".
- Ongoing intention or likelihood existing up to the present time: the present perfect of the copula is used (producing the present perfect progressive of go): "I have been going to do it for some time" (but I've never got round to it); "It has been going to rain all afternoon" (but it hasn't actually started raining until now). Similar sentences can also be constructed using past perfect progressive etc.
- Future relative to future time: it is possible to use the future of the going-to construction ("I will be going to eat"), though this is not common; somewhat more likely is the alternative "I will be about to eat".
- Future relative to some hypothetical state: the conditional may be used: "I would be going to eat"; or the past tense (past subjunctive) in a condition clause: "If I was/were going to eat..." The usual rules for tense and mood usage in English conditional sentences apply.
- Future relative to unspecified time: the infinitive (or occasionally present subjunctive) of the copula can be used, as in "To be going to die is not a good feeling." The infinitive (with or without to) can be used in a variety of constructions, in line with the normal uses of the English infinitive; for example "He is said to be going to resign".
Similar adaptation of some other future constructions is also possible. The future will or shall can be put into the past by replacement with would or should (see future in the past). The phrase to be about to can be put into various tense and other forms, analogous to those of to be going to as described above. The construction am to etc. is normally restricted to simple finite forms of the copula, namely the present indicative ("I am to do it"), the past indicative ("I was to do it"), and the past subjunctive ("if I were to do it" or "were I to do it"; these last have somewhat different implications, as described at English conditional sentences).
Related forms in creoles
Examples include Jamaican English Creole /de go hapm/ "is going to happen", /mi a go ɹon/ "I am going to run", Belizean Creole English /gwein/ or /gouɲ/, Gullah Uh gwine he'p dem "I'm going to help them", Hawaiian Creole English /Ai gon bai wan pickup/ "I gonna buy one pickup", /Da gai sed hi gon fiks mi ap wit wan blain deit/ "The guy said he gonna fix me up with one blind date", and Haitian Creole /Mwen va fini/ "I go finish".
Analogous forms in other languages
Similarly to English, the French verb aller ("to go") can be used as an auxiliary verb to create a near-future tense (le futur proche). For example, the English sentence "I am going to do it tomorrow" can be translated by Je vais le faire demain (literally "I go it to do tomorrow"; French does not have a distinct present progressive form, so je vais stands for both "I go" and "I am going"). As in English, the French form can generally be replaced by the present or future tense: Je le fais demain ("I am doing it tomorrow") or Je le ferai demain ("I will do it tomorrow").
Likewise, the Spanish verb ir ("to go") can be used to express the future: Mi padre va a llegar mañana ("My father is going to arrive tomorrow"). Here the preposition a is used, analogous to the English to; the French construction does not have this.
- Fleischman, Suzanne, The Future in Thought and Language, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982.
- Fleischman, pp. 18–19 and 95–97.
- Fleischman, pp. 86–89.
- Fleischman, p. 92.
- Fleischman, p. 65.
- Holm, John, An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 188.
- Holm, pp. 93–95.
- Sakoda, Kent, and Siegel, Jeff, Pidgin Grammar, Bess Press, 2003, pp. 38, 55-72.
- Turnbull, Wally R., Creole Made Easy, Light Messages, 2000, p. 13.
- Fleischman, pp. 98-99.