by Scott Rhoades
Yesterday, my friend Kimpei in Japan asked me for information about the progressive tense (as he called it), and whether there is a point when something will be too far in the future to express it in a present tense form. Because writers should at least have a basic understanding of why certain grammatical things that we do naturally are done the way they are, I thought I'd share my response, modified for blogginess.
Kimpei's question is a very good one, and I can see how it can be confusing to non-native speakers. In fact, most English speakers wouldn't even be able to explain beyond, "It just feels correct."
English tenses can get complicated. The present simple and the present continuous (also sometimes called present progressive) tenses are used when there are definite arrangements or plans in the future, or when you want to express a hope for the future in a way that makes it sound definite. The time must be included.
I'm skiing in Canada next February
This is good usage, as long as you have definite plans.
At this time next February, I'm skiing in Japan.
This is technically correct, but to a native speaker, it sounds a little bit off. I think it's because the continuous is less formal, and "At this time next February" feels formal.
As long as you have a definite plan, intention, or opinion and you mention the time time, you can use one of these tenses.
I am watching Team USA play baseball tonight.
I am going to Japan in 2015.
There's a wrinkle with less definite times. It's also OK to say:
Someday, I am going to Japan.
That has a meaning of "I don't know when exactly, but I am definitely going to go."
Often, for intentions or hopes, or for a future event that is less certain, we would use "be going to." For example:
The USA is going to beat Japan in the WBC final.
I am going to eat a hamburger for lunch.
The difference is, this shows intention, but is less definite. Maybe the USA won't win. Maybe I'll have spaghetti for lunch. I can express either one in more definite terms, if I'm absolutely sure, or if I want to emphasize my desire to eat a hamburger or for the USA to win. By using the present, I'm saying that I am either absolutely sure those things will happen, or I'm expressing that I desire those things to happen so strongly that I can say them in a definite way, or I'm predicting that it will definitely happen.
So, you can say the same thing in these ways, each with a slightly different meaning:
I fly to San Francisco next Wednesday. (My personal, definite, plans, or somebody else's arrangements for me.)
I am going to fly to San Francisco next Wednesday. (My personal intentions)
I am flying to San Francisco next Wednesday. (My personal definite arrangements)
It might sound difficult, but the good news is, most English speakers and listeners are not so precise. If you are planning to visit your friend in September, you can say so in any of these ways (and probably a few others) and still be perfectly correct and understandable. There might be slight differences in meaning, but you can communicate perfectly well without being to concerned about those shades of meaning. Most English speakers don't consciously recognize the differences.