Four ways to talk about the future

In English, there are many ways of talking about events in the future. Many students find it difficult to decide which form to use in a particular situation. This page explains the differences between four main forms which we use when talking about future time.

Basic meanings of the four forms

Most students know that "will" and "going to" are used to talk about future time in English. However, we also use the present progressive ("be" + ING) and the present simple tense. Here are the basic rules:

Meaning / Usage
volunteering to do something
deciding at the time of speaking to do something
Angelo: I need a pencil.
Sarah: I'll lend you mine.
"Going to"
talking about something that is already decided
Angelo: Have you registered for the class yet?
Sarah: Not yet. I'm going to register tomorrow.
Present Continuous
talking about something that is already arranged
Angelo: Do you want to go to the movies tonight?
Sarah: Sorry, I can't. I'm playing soccer.
Present simple
talking about a schedule, timetable or program
Angelo: What time does the next bus leave?
Sarah: It leaves at six.

Predicting the future

When you are predicting what you think will happen in the future, you should choose the form based on how certain you are. If you're not too sure, it's fine to use "will", but if you're nearly certain about something, it's best to use "going to":

I think it will rain.
(I'm not sure, but it looks like it might.)
It's going to rain.
(I'm sure it's going to rain -- I can see black clouds in the sky.)