English Tenses and Aspect 6 - The Prospective Aspect

Summary: A look at the use of the 'going to' form in English

English Tenses and Aspect 6 - The Prospective Aspect

6.1. Traditional 'Rules'.

Many writers do not consider this form specifically as an aspect; they refer to it by various namesi. Typical lists in grammars of the uses include:

unmarked

  1. Present intention of a future situation: They can’t treat me like this. I’m going to hand in my notice.

  2. Present evidence of a future situation: Look at those clouds! It’s going to pour down soon.



marked

……3. Past intention of a later situation that actualised (or will actualise): I didn’t call Mary on Monday morning, as I was going to see her that evening.

……4. Past intention of a later situation that was interrupted: The children arrived just as she was going to put her feet up.

……5. Past intention of a later situation that did not actualize: Neysa was going to look for a new job, but she decided to stay after she got her rise.

……6. Past evidence of a later situation that would actualize: John cursed as he saw the bus pull away. He was going to be late again.



unmarked retrospective

……7. Looking back on a past intention for a situation that has not (yet) actualized: George has been going to mend that tap for weeks.



marked retrospective

……8. Looking back on a past intention of a later past situation that would not actualise at that later past time: Why did she have to arrive now? He had been going to have a quiet day in his study. No hope of that now!




6.2. The Prospective ‘Rule’.

The traditional ways of looking at the uses of 
(BE) going to are reasonably accurate, but, like so many ways of considering tenses and aspects, they distinguish unnecessarily between related uses. (BE) going to is a very common way of looking into the future (and frequently more appropriate than the so-called ‘future simple tense). In addition, in many of its uses, as in the two pairs of examples below, it mirrors very closely the retrospective aspect.


……9a. He has (just) crashed. (looking back on a very near past)
……9b. He is going to crash. (looking forward to a very near future)

……10a. I’ve eaten sushi. (looking back on an undetermined past)
……10b. I’m going to eat sushi one day. (looking forward to an undetermined future)

Accordingly, I consider it in this thread as the 
prospective aspectii .


The form may be unmarked, 
I am going to work or marked, I was going to work. It also shows unmarked and marked retrospective aspects, I have /had been going to work.

One simple 'rule' that covers 
all uses of this aspect is:

We use the prospective aspect when we see, at some point in time, evidence for the later actualisation of a situation.

We may distance our view of the evidence in time, reality or directness, or we may view it retrospectively, but this is done in accord with normal use of the appropriate tenses and aspects. Whether or not the situation actualises/actualised is not implicit in the 
(BE) going to itself; context and co-text make this clear.

It is not necessary to differentiate between 
evidence and intention; the evidence may be in the speaker’s mind (and possibly suggest intention) [1] or perceptible to one or more of the senses [2]; it is still evidence.

……1. They can’t treat me like this. I’m going to hand in my notice.

……2. Look at those clouds! It’s going to pour down soon.



Quite frequently, as with much of language, the words alone, taken out of context, do not make it clear exactly what the speaker wishes to convey. Thus, in

…… 11. Vicki is going to have a baby next year,


the evidence available to the speaker may be the sight of a pregnant woman, or the knowledge that they have obtained about Vicki’s intention to have a baby. For purely practical reasons the first interpretation of this utterance is normally possible only in the latter part of 
this year (the situation of a woman’s pregnancy not normally being visible in the first two months or so). The second interpretation is possible at any time during the year. This is not a problem outside grammar books. In real life, speakers try to make their meaning clear. If the words alone are unclear, something is added:

……11a. Vicki is going to have a baby next year. She is showing already.
……11b. Vicki is going to have a baby next year. She tells me she is coming off the pill after Christmas,

Sometimes, as in [3] and [6], the implication is of actualisation of the situation; at other times, as in [4] and [5], it is of its non-actualisation.

……3. I didn’t call Mary on Monday morning, as I was going to see her that evening.

……4. The children arrived just as she was going to put her feet up.

……5. Neysa was going to look for a new job, but she decided to stay after she got her rise.

……6. John cursed as he saw the bus pull away. He was going to be late again.



As we noted earlier, whether or not the situation actualises/actualised is not implicit in 
(BE) going to itself; context/co-text make this clear. If it is not clear, the speaker may add a clarifying note [3a, 3b], or the listener may ask a question to clear up doubt [3c].

……3a. I didn’t call Mary, as I was going to see her that evening. As it turned out, I didn’t get to see her, so 1 called her next morning.
……3b. I didn’t call Mary on Monday morning, as I was going to see her that evening. When I arrived, she told me that she had lost her mobile, so I couldn’t have called her anyway.
……3c. AI didn’t call Mary on Monday morning, as I was going to see her that evening.
…………B. Did you get to see her?

The retrospective aspect in [7] and [8] denotes that the evidence of the later situation continues up to the point of retrospection, and so the situation probably does/did not actualise.

……7. George has been going to mend that tap for weeks.

……8. Why did she have to arrive now? He had been going to have a quiet day in his study. No hope of that now!



The verb itself may have the durative or retrospective aspect:

……12. I am going to be working all day tomorrow.

……13. The children are going to have visited ever country in Europe by the end of this year.

……14. am going to have been working for twelve hours without a break by the time I get this report finished.



An utterance such as [14], combining both durative and retrospective aspects with the unmarked prospective aspect is acceptable English to some speakers, but is rare. This is partly because such situations themselves are comparatively rare, and partly because most speakers tend to prefer a slightly shorter equivalent with 
practically the same meaning:

……14a. will have been working for twelve hours without a break by the time I get this report finished.


modal prospective form is possible:

……15. The admissions process for entry in 2007 begins when the schools go back this month, although children will only find out in March which schools they will be going to attend (Aarts (2011.30)).


This appears to suggest future evidence of a (later) future action. However, such explicit reference to a ‘future-in-the-future’ is rarely encountered. It is normally expressed in one of these ways:

……15a.… children will find out only in March which schools they are going to attend.
……15b. … children will find out only in March which schools they are will be attending.

 

i It is called an idiom (Huddleston and Pullum (2002.210)), an idiosyncratic combination, a lexical verb with a modal meaning (Aarts (2011. 309-309)) a periphrastic modal (Yule (1998. 86)), phrasal modal (Celce-Muria and Larsen-Freeman (1999.139)), semi- modal, (Biber (1999.484)) quasi-auxiliary (Palmer (1974.163)), semi-auxiliary (Quirk et al (1985.137), or just the (BE) going to Future. 

 

ii I first came across the idea of a prospective aspect in Lewis, Michael (1986.81, The English Verb.

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word:

Latest from ' English Grammar'

How to teach verbs of senses Read More »

Trustpilot