Future-in-the-Past Use in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Past future signs
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In English grammar, the future-in-the-past is the use of "would or was/were going to" to refer to the future from the perspective of some point in the past.

As illustrated below, other verbs in the past progressive can also be used to convey this future-in-the-past perspective.

See Examples and Observations, below.

Examples and Observations:

  • "Matilda stretched herself out, feeling her bones getting longer and longer. In a little while she would be taller than Frances, maybe one day even taller than Elizabeth. Maybe one day she would be the tallest woman in the world and she could join a circus."
  • "She was sure that Boyne would never come back, that he had gone out of her sight as completely as if Death itself had waited that day on the threshold."
  • "He had not believed her when she said they would meet only once."
  • "Fred Ballard, a local playwright friend of my mother, told her that I should go to his alma mater, Harvard and that he would make inquiries on my behalf, which he did without success."
  • Use of be going to
    "[T]he future-in-the-past... is used where the speaker wishes to refer to a past time at which a particular event was still in the future, even though now, at the moment of speaking, it is past. This particular combination frequently makes use of the semi-modal expression be going to since this is readily marked for the past. It is frequently used where some anticipated event does not occur or an expectation is cancelled. Consider these examples:
    • I was going to tell him, but he didn't give me a chance.
    • I thought we were going to eat out tonight.
    • She was going to qualify next year, but now it will take longer."
  • Use of the Past Progressive
    "When an 'arranged-future-in-the-past' (or rather 'arranged-future-from-the-past,' as it is a future relative to the time of a past arrangement) concerns a personal arrangement, we normally use the progressive form of the past tense. This parallels the use of the present progressive for arranged post-present situations.
    • [Mary and Bill were stuffing a goose.] They were having guests that evening.
    • [There was no point in inviting the Robinsons, as] they were leaving the day before the party.
    • [The man was very nervous.] He was getting married that morning.
    • [I didn't call him up to tell him the news because] I was going to his office the next day.
      The use of the progressive past is possible even if the context makes it clear that the action planned was not actually performed."
  • Relative Tenses
    "Relative tenses represent deictic tenses. . . . Thus had sung is the past-in-the-past, has sung the past-in-the-present, and will-have-sung the past-in-the-future. Similarly, would sing is the future-in-the-past, is (about) to sing the future-in-the-present, and will be (about) to sing the future-in-the-future. Coincident (relatively present) tenses are ignored by many contemporary theorists, though Lo Cascio (1982: 42) writes of the imperfect, which is considered in traditional grammar a present-in-the-past, as a past coincident tense."

Also Known As

Prediction in the past


Ursula Dubosarsky, The Red Shoe. Roaring Book Press, 2006

Edith Wharton, "Afterward," 1910

Joseph L. Cacibauda, After Laughing, Comes Crying: Sicilian Immigrants on Louisiana Plantations. Legas, 2009

Ted Sorensen, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. Harper, 2008

Martin J. Endley, Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar. Information Age, 2010

Renaat Declerck, Susan Reed, and Bert Cappelle, The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis. Walter de Gruyter, 2006

Robert I. Binnick, "Temporality and Aspectuality." Language Typology and Language Universals: An International Handbook, ed.

by Martin Haspelmath. Walter de Gruyter, 2001

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Future-in-the-Past Use in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Mar. 15, 2018, thoughtco.com/future-in-the-past-grammar-1690811. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, March 15). Future-in-the-Past Use in English Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/future-in-the-past-grammar-1690811 Nordquist, Richard. "Future-in-the-Past Use in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/future-in-the-past-grammar-1690811 (accessed March 17, 2018).