More About the Future in Spanish

Tense and timing of a verb’s action don’t always align

Woman eating a carrot
¡Comerás la zanahoria! (You will eat the carrot!).

Edvard March / Getty Images 

If you think that the future tense in Spanish is used to talk about events that will happen in the future, you're only partly right. For the Spanish future tense also has two other uses, one of which corresponds to an English usage and one that does not. And if you think that the only way of talking about the future in Spanish is to use the future tense, you'd be mistaken.

Spanish Future Tense as Emphatic Command

If you grew up not liking vegetables, you may remember having a stern parent saying something like "You will eat the carrots" with a strong emphasis on the "will." In such a sentence, the English future tense is being used not merely to say what will happen, but also to insist that it does. The same can be done in Spanish. Depending on the context and intonation, a sentence such as "Comerás las zanahorias" can be either a prediction or a strong command.

  • ¡Te dormirás a las 10! (You will go to sleep at 10!)
  • ¡Saldrán si causan problems! (You will leave if you cause problems!)
  • ¡Esturiarás toda la noche! (You will study all night!)

Unlike with English, this type of reference to the future can be made in Spanish only with the simple future tense. Spanish does not use the progressive tenses (such as estarás estudiendo for "you will be studying") for this purpose.

Spanish Future Tense for Indicating Probability

More common is to use the future verb forms as a way of expressing something that is probable or supposed. There is no real verb-only equivalent in English; usually we would express such a thought by using "probably," "likely," "I suppose" or some similar word or phrase. In question form, the future tense can indicate uncertainty rather than probability.

Here are examples of such usages of the Spanish future tense with possible translations:

  • Pablo no está aquí. Estará en casa. (Paul isn't here. He's probably at home.)
  • ¿Qué hora es? Será la una. (What time is it? I suppose it's 1 o'clock.)
  • Han trabajado mucho. Estarán cansados. (They've worked hard. They must be tired.)
  • Estoy confudida. ¿Me amará? (I'm confused. I wonder if he loves me.)

Keep in mind that the understanding of such sentences, and therefore the translation, will often depend on the context. For example, estará en casa could mean both "he/she will be at home" or "he/she probably is at home," depending on what else is said in the conversation. And of course, the same is true when translating to Spanish. In the third example above, deben estar cansados would not be a correct translation, because "they must" expresses probability rather than obligation.

Ways of Talking About the Future in Spanish

There are at least three ways of expressing the future in Spanish without using the future tense.

Periphrastic Future

The most common way is to use a form of the verb ir ("to go"), followed by a and an infinitive.

  • Voy a salir. (I am going to leave.)
  • Van a comprar un coche. (They are going to buy a car. )
  • ¿Vas a estudiar? (Are you going to study?)

This use of ir a is so common that it is popularly thought of as the future tense in some areas and mostly replaces the standard future in everyday speech. This way of discussing the future is known as the periphrastic future tense.

Using the Indicative Present for Future Actions

In some cases, as in English, it is possible to use the present tense to tell of future events.

  • Sale el tren a las ocho. (The train leaves at 8.)
  • La fiesta de películas comienza esta noche. (The film festival begins tonight.)
  • Llega Paulina a las siete de la tarde. (Paulina arrives at 7 p.m. tonight.)

This type of present-as-future is most common for scheduled events occurring in the near future.

Using the Subjunctive Present for Future Actions

Finally, Spanish sometimes uses the present subjunctive where we would use the future indicative in English.

  • Dudo que ella vaya, (I doubt she will go.)
  • Espero que haga buen tiempo, (I hope the weather will be good.)
  • Lo siento que salgas, (I am sorry you will leave.)

Often when discussing a future event, the subjunctive doesn't express something that definitely will happen, but rather events that might or won't happen. In other cases, the subjunctive will be used in a sentence that focuses on the reaction to a future event, as in the third example above.

Key Takeaways

  • The future tense in both Spanish and English can be used for emphatic commands.
  • In Spanish but not English, the future tense is sometimes used to indicate that a verb's action is likely or that the speaker is supposing that it will happen.
  • In both languages, the present indicative tense can be used to say something will happen in the near future.