Future-in-the-Past Use in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

signs pointing towards the future and the past

4X-image / Getty Images

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.

Also known as: Prediction in the past

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 canceled. 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."


  • Robert I. Binnick, "Temporality and Aspectuality." Language Typology and Language Universals: An International Handbook, ed. by Martin Haspelmath. Walter de Gruyter, 2001.
  • Joseph L. Cacibauda, After Laughing, Comes Crying: Sicilian Immigrants on Louisiana Plantations. Legas, 2009.
  • Renaat Declerck, Susan Reed, and Bert Cappelle, The Grammar of the English Tense System: A Comprehensive Analysis. Walter de Gruyter, 2006
  • Ursula Dubosarsky, The Red Shoe. Roaring Book Press, 2006.
  • Martin J. Endley, Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar. Information Age, 2010
  • Ted Sorensen, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History. Harper, 2008.
  • Edith Wharton, "Afterward," 1910.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Future-in-the-Past Use in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/future-in-the-past-grammar-1690811. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). 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 November 29, 2022).