Future In The Past – Often Ignored But Very Useful!

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

Have you ever heard of Future in the Past Tense? The chances are – you haven’t! It’s quite weird, but it’s true – many English Grammar books and English learning websites simply ignore Future in the Past!

So here’s how it works – whenever you’re re-telling past events, the word WILL becomes WOULD – when referring to future during your story.

Example: After the first week in gym I decided I WOULD never quit!

Before I had learned this simple grammar rule about using Future in the Past, I would say the above sentence using the word WILL:

After the first week in gym I decided I WILL never quit it!

How wrong was I… And how wrong are thousands of other foreign English speakers! Yes, I’ve met quite fluent English speakers in my life who still kept on making the same mistake – using WILL when describing future events from past’s perspective.

If you’re wondering why is this Future in the Past Tense often ignored by English teaching industry and foreign English speakers – here’s a very reasonable explanation.

If you see a word WOULD used in a sentence like – I told him I WOULD call back – you might think it’s used to describe a probable action like in conditional sentences.

And indeed if you’re saying something like – I WOULD call back if I had enough time – the word would implies probability. In other words – something you would do if the circumstances were different.

But in this situation it wouldn’t make sense to use the word WILL as you’re not describing a future decision. So this reasoning makes us assume that the word WOULD is used only when describing actions with a certain degree of probability.

And even if you’re been reading somewhere about Future in the Past – did it say that you MUST change WILL to WOULD when describing future decisions from the past perspective? Most likely it didn’t, and I’m really shocked about it!

You’ve probably learned all types of conditionals and know how to use them, but still saying things like – I told my brother I will start looking for a new job next week.

You see – most likely it’s perfect in terms of grammar from our native language standpoint, but totally wrong in English!

It’s not one of those grammar rules that can be ignored like skipping the word Do or Does when starting a question. You can say You did it? instead of Did you do it? – and in a real life conversation if will be fine, no-one will notice that. But if you say – Didn’t I tell you I’LL do it? – any native speaker will notice the mistake.

Future in the Past is one of those things that definitely adds a native touch to your English and you just have to say – Didn’t I tell you I’D do it?

Also please note that the word WOULD shortens and becomes ‘dI’d instead of I would.

So to make your English speech more native and fluent, please drop the will’s and ‘ll’s when telling stories about past events and referring to future decisions or events throughout the story. Use would and ‘d instead!

I rang in sick today and told my boss I wouldn’t come in till Monday.

Didn’t I tell you I’d go shopping today?

By the way – if you’ve been thinking that this ‘d means would as in describing probable actions – you’re wrong! It’s simply saying will in a story where the main action takes place in the past!

So you see – little things like this grammar rule can make a BIG difference in English fluency!

I hope you’ll find this useful and as always I’d love you to comment below!



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  • Avinash Kumar

    Hi Robby, Thanks for this beautiful article!
    Let me share you my perspective on this…
    Basically you are telling about back shifting concepts and I’m in total agreement with you, however, if something is still relevant to the current time we can use “WILL” too.
    For Instance-
    After the first week in gym I decided I WILL never quit it! (It implies that I have still not quit the gym, i.e. still relevant; so, it’s correct too)
    And back shifted version is always fine in either case i.e. After the first week in gym I decided I WOULD never quit it!

  • Don

    Well, it’s been a long time since anyone posted here, but I’ll add my thoughts. Listen to any sports broadcast these days and you’ll hear the announcer say, “John played some brilliant tennis, passing his opponent here with a great shot. He would go on to win the match in straight sets.” It’s a nice rhetorical touch on occasion, but it has overwhelmed the airwaves. Broadcasters have forgotten the simple past tense. “He went on to win the match!” Period. And yes, I know it’s strange to rave about the littlest of things. It’s the curse of an English major.

  • Hi Beth,nnIt seems I got you wrong! I thought you maintained that whenever the future action is yet to happen, we CAN’T use the Past Tense.nnI really appreciate the following point you made: “We (native English speakers) would only think it is wrong (using “will” if the main clause is in Past Tense) if the event was in the past from the current perspective, or if the event in the future has been negated.”u00a0nnIn puts the Future in the Past in a slightly different perspective – thanks a lot for pointing this out! ;-)nnBest Regards,nnRobby

  • Beth

    I never disagreed with what you said, I merely was stating that both are correct.u00a0 I am also not saying there is no sequence of tense in English, I didn’t mean for it to come across that way.u00a0 This would be one of those exceptions where you can still use future tense when wanting to show that it is still believed to happen in the future.u00a0 nnAs I wrote, your example was correct, I was just giving another possibility that we do use.u00a0 One of the things I love about the English language is we don’t always need context – there are so many ways to change the verb around that you don’t have to sit there and look at the situation to figure out exactly what they want to say.u00a0 It is absolutely true that generally speaking, if the principal clause is in the past tense, the subordinate will be as well.u00a0 In this specific case, future tense may be used if you so choose/nnYour post was talking about how to make yourself sound more native, and explicitly said that native speakers would notice the mistake and this isn’t necessarily the case.u00a0 We would only think it is wrong if the event was in the past from the current perspective, or if the event in the future has been negated.u00a0 Perhaps for the sake of foreign speakers, it’s easier to ignore the exception since both are totally fine.nnAnd this is part of the fun of languages, isn’t it? :)u00a0 Future in the past is definitely something I am struggling with teaching my students because their native language is based a LOT on context and they don’t have about 1/2 of these tenses/aspects (which also frustrates me when I’m speaking in their language! ha)u00a0 nnI think this explanation of future in the past is the best I’ve come across, and I’ll definitely recommend your site/program to my more advanced students!u00a0 Kudos 🙂

  • Hi Beth,nnWith all due respect, I will disagree.u00a0nnYou’re saying “It’s not that they haven’t happened yet, but that they DIDN’T or COULDN’T happen”.nnSo you’re saying there’s no such thing as sequence of Tenses in English language?u00a0http://www.englishpractice.com/improve/sequence-tenses/u00a0I always thought that once the main clause is in the Past Tense it DEMANDS one of Past Tenses used in the subordinate clause REGARDLESS of the intention expressed in the sentence (weather the Future action is absolutely certain or not, or if it’s alreadyu00a0happenedu00a0or not).nOf course there are exceptions, but from what you’re saying I understand you’re putting the main emphasis on the nature of the Future event. I’m looking at it clearly from a technical standpoint – once there’s Past Tense in the main clause, all my “will”s automatically become “would”s simply because Past Tense demands it.nnI’d be really surprised if I’d been getting this completely wrong for the last decade or so, and I can’t see how the sequence of Tenses rule would have changed since I first learnt it.nnI understand that you as a native English speaking person have a much deeper understanding of such intricacies of the English language, and I also agree there’s nothing wrong with saying “I told him I will go” in an informal chat. Still I would argue that the sentence “I told him I would go” doesn’t necessarily indicate uncertainty regarding the action of the departure. It may be both – uncertainty AND a strong volition to go and there’s no way of saying which one it is unless we look at the CONTEXT.u00a0nnSo I’d say we can use Future in the Past for both kinds of events – the ones that DIDN’T and COULDN’T happen and the ones that WILL HAPPEN.nnRegards,nnRobby

  • Beth

    Future in the past is used to describe events that WERE in the future during a past perspective. Sometimes these events are still in the future, but the main idea behind the tense is that you are speaking about the future from the past. It’s not that they haven’t happened yet, but that they DIDN’T or COULDN’T happen, despite thinking in the past that they would. For future in the past, there are two formations:nnn1. Conditional – I would have gone if I hadn’t been busy.nn2. to be going to – I was going to go if I hadn’t been busy. (More commonly – I was going to go, BUT I was busy – instead of an “if” clause)n – as you likely know, this one is used more for plans, and is usually less certain.nnnMy point with whether or not it needed to be in future tense or conditional tense if the event is still in the future (while in the present time) is that both are said. It doesn’t matter if the principal clause is in the past if the event is in the future even now. I think it mostly depends on the emphasis you want to place on the future-ness (I know, not an actual word) of the event. With my example from above:nnnI told him that I will go to Europe next year. – Here, I am emphasizing that I am still going to go next year, that this is an event that has not occurred yet and the conditions haven’t changed.nnnI told him that I would go to Europe next year. – Here there is less emphasis on the fact that I will go in the future. To me, it sounds less certain that I am still going to go, or at least puts more emphasis on what I said rather than what I will do.nnnI’m not sure if that makes sense, because the differences have very slight nuances. I’m not disagreeing with the second one being correct, what I’m saying is that we do say both and the first one does not sound wrong.nnnAnd for the last part, I understand where you’re coming from. Again, it’s a matter of nuance. I know that I teach my students for their standardized tests that if they see something like “by [time]” to look for a perfect tense because that’s how the tests work. However, both are grammatically correct. To clarify, let me first use regular future tenses:nnnI will go to school by tomorrow morning.nnI will have gone to school by tomorrow morning.n nnnThe first one, in simple future tense, merely states that I will go by a certain time. The second one indicates that by that certain time, the act will be completed. We can say both, it honestly just depends on what the speaker wants to emphasize.nnnThis same principle came be carried over to future in the past tenses, where they function exactly the same but from a past perspective. How you would say it is absolutely correct, it just has a a bit of a different nuance.n

  • Hi Beth, I’m a bit confused after reading your comment. I’m pretty sure (correct me if I’m wrong) that future in the past IS used to describe FUTURE events that HAVEN’T happened yet. My understanding is that the very Past Tense in the main clause “I told him” demands the subordinate clause to be in the Past Tense as well even though the event is yet to take place at some stage in the future.nnAnd the last sentence doesn’t sound right to me – I would have said “I told him that I would have gone to Europe by now.” nn

  • Beth

    Hey, this is a really good post that I came across when searching for teaching about future in the past. The only thing I have to add is that we (English speakers) actually will say something such as “I told him that I will go to Europe next year.”nnnThis follows to the rules of indirect speech, where you only change the tense of the verb if it is no longer a future event. In this case, the speaker is still going in the future, so it is not incorrect for the verb to remain in future tense. It is probably better to say “I told him that I would go to Europe next year” but in terms of what “sounds” right as a native speaker, I would say that both seem fine. As long as the event is still in the future, people will not think you are saying it incorrectly if you keep the “will.”nnnYou are absolutely correct, though, that if the actions are in the past, “would” is necessary – “I told him that I would go tno Europe by now.”n