📗 “We will go—you and I alone, Caroline—to that wood …”
“We are going to see Miss Shirley Keeldar.”
– Charlotte Bronte, Shirley (1849)
🔎 In what ways is the future tense in these two sentences different?
This is a question that baffles many students – understandably, since the differences are very subtle!
This is how I explain it: the modal verb ‘will’ with the verb ‘go’ (as in the first quotation, using the simple future tense) express the idea that something is simply going to take place in the future.
On the other hand, the expression ‘are going to …’ (the present continuous tense, second quotation) includes this but also carries a sense of intentionality, of planning and purpose.
✍️ Put simply, ‘will [verb]’ describes an expectation or prediction, while ‘be going to [verb]’ describes intention or strong wish, as well as a prediction.
Depending on the context, sometimes ‘will’ and ‘be going to …’ are interchangeable, and sometimes they carry such different meanings in the same context that they cannot be synonymous.
For this reason, we will read some passages from Charlotte Bronte’s book Shirley (1849), which I have been re-reading this weekend (as an audiobook). The titular heroine, Shirley Keeldar, is headstrong (energetically wilful and determined) and uses both constructions of the future tense often – the perfect narrative to guide us through today’s topic.
📝 ‘BE GOING TO …’ (PRESENT CONTINUOUS)
We will start by going back in the story to see how Caroline Helstone and her uncle first prepared themselves to meet Shirley Keeldar at Fieldhead, her new home.
Mr Helstone, as you will see, uses the construction ‘be going to …’ since he is making a plan to meet Shirley.
📗 “We are going to see Miss Shirley Keeldar.”
“Miss Keeldar! Is she coming to Yorkshire? Is she at Fieldhead?”
“She is. She has been there a week. I met her at a party last night—that party to which you would not go. I was pleased with her. I choose that you shall make her acquaintance. It will do you good.”
“She is now come of age, I suppose?”
“She is come of age, and will reside for a time on her property. I lectured her on the subject; I showed her her duty. She is not intractable. She is rather a fine girl; she will teach you what it is to have a sprightly spirit. Nothing lackadaisical about her.”
– Charlotte Bronte, Shirley (emphasis mine)
✍️ Notice how Mr Helstone switches to using ‘will’ in the last paragraph quoted above: ‘She is come of age, and will reside for a time on her property.’ He uses ‘will’ here because he is describing a simple fact of futurity.
Remember: ‘will’ usually describes an prediction rather than an intention.