Future in the past – What were you going to do?

In English, there exists a concept called “future in the past”. This is when you talk about how the future was going to be at some point in the past (whether it actually happened or not). Before you continue this article, if you are unfamiliar with either the future tense or the past tense, please read A Review of Active Tenses in English (focusing on the past and future tenses).

Do you remember what you were going to be when you grew? How were you going to achieve this?

It’s called this not only because of what it describes (a possible future from some point in the past) but also because it resembles both the future and past tenses. Let’s look at the forms:

Form 1: was/were going to + verb

Form 2: would + verb

From these forms, we can see that they look like the past tense (for example “was/were” and “would”) but also that they look similar to the future forms (“be going to” and “will”). In fact, the way we use these forms is exactly the same way we use “be going to” and “will” in the future. Here is a review of those uses:

Plans

Plans are things that are certain, so in the future, we use “is going to”. For these, whether the plan actually happened or not, we also use the going to form, “was/were going to”. For example:

As a child, I was going to be an astronaut.

This was a plan at a point in your life when you were a child. As a child, you are often certain about what you want to do with life, especially for your dream career, even if that changes every week or even every day. As a child I was certain that I was going to be an astronaut. It still is a sort of fantasy of mine but it is not going to happen.

Predictions

Predictions in the future can use either the “will” form or “be going to” forms; they are interchangeable. This is also true for future in the past. Both of the following sentences mean the same thing:

I had a feeling that the vacation was going to be a disaster.
I had a feeling that the vacation would be a disaster.

Voluntary actions

When you volunteer for something in the future, you say: “I will help you tomorrow”. You can see here that we use the will form. The same is true for future in the past. The equivalent sentence would be:

I told him I would help him the next day.

Promises

Promises in the future also use the will form; this is the same for future in the past:

I promise that I will help you tomorrow. – Future

I promised her that I would help her the next day. – Future in the past

A note on time clauses

Just like what happens when talking about the future, if you use a time clause, you do not use future in the past. Examples of time clauses include: when, while, before, after, by the time, as soon as, if, unless, etc. In the future, we use the present simple instead. For future in the past, we use the past simple:

I told Sarah when she arrived (NOT would arrived) that we were going to a party.

For teachers

Students often struggle with this concept in the beginning because many languages do not have something like “future in the past” in their native language. That doesn’t mean that they can’t talk about the situation in their own languages (far from it!) but this concept of using what looks like the past tense and then using the English rules to talk about the future (and the two different forms) is usually not how their native languages do it. I have found that modelling future in the past (writing it down usually also helps) after comparing it to both the future and the past, followed by splitting students into groups and having them ask prepared questions (see below) generally works well. Some questions include:

Tell a partner about what you wanted to be when you grew up and how you were going to achieve this goal?
What holidays/vacations were you planning to take in 2020? What did you do instead?
Did you have any other plans in 2020? What did you do instead?
What New Year’s Resolution were you going to follow this year? Did you follow it? What happened?
What classes were you planning to take before classes went online? What did you take instead?

For the first question, I would model by saying: “When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was going to study very hard and then join NASA so I could go into outer space.” Note that the first sentence is not future in the past. It is simply the past simple because we first need to talk about the point in the past that is our reference. From there, we talk about our perspective of the future from that moment; in this case, what my plans were at the time.

If you want to focus more on grammar or writing for this lesson, there are many examples of online exercises that can be adapted for use in the classroom as well that can be found by searching “future in the past” on Google.

Depending on your students and their taste in music (or willingness to listen to certain genres, regardless of taste), you can also find songs that use future in the past. While the following song might not be acceptable in certain situations (because of the topic of drug use), it contains excellent examples of future in the past and can be used in more forward-thinking settings:

The verses of the song has the most obvious use of the future in the past:

I was gonna (note: gonna = going to) clean my room until I got high
I was gonna get up and find the broom but then I got high

I was gonna go to class before I got high

These are examples of future in the past. They were actions that the singer planned to do but they were interrupted by another event (getting high). These are examples of future in the past for something that did not happen.


If you liked this post, why not check out my Teaching English page for more articles. More specialised English topics can also be found under posts such as Doublets (and Triplets) in English or The Basic Characteristics of Scientific Language.

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