Uses for the Future Tense

It Can Be Used for Emphatic Commands, Statements of Possibility

¡Comerás las zanahorias! (You will eat the carrots!). Photo by Swong95765; licensed via Creative Commons.

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.

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.

Present probability: More common is to use the future verb forms as a way of expressing something that is probable or supposed. The verb-only equivalent in English is rare; 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.

Following are examples of such usages of the Spanish future tense with some 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 where it is used. 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.

Other ways of expressing the future: Although it's beyond the scope of this lesson to go into considerable detail, keep in mind that there are at least three ways of expressing the future in Spanish without using the future tense.

Probably the most common 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. This use of ir a is so common that it is popularly thought of as the future tense in some areas. ¿Vas a estudiar? Are you going to study?

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.

Finally, Spanish sometimes uses the present subjunctive where we would use the future tense in English. Dudo que ella vaya, I doubt she will go. Espero que haga buen tiempo, I hope the weather will be good. 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. Lo siento que salgas, I am sorry you will leave. See lessons on the subjuntive mood for a further explanation of this usage.

A final note: One of the cardinal rules of translating between two languages is to be concerned about meaning rather than word-for-word translation. This rule is particularly important when translating the English word "will," which can be used for more than the future tense. And, of course, as indicated above, the future tense in Spanish doesn't necessarily translate to the future tense in English. By and large, though, you will find the future tense straightforward.