Grammar curiosities 10: be going

Following on from my previous post on the present continuous, I pose this question – isn’t be going to actually an example of the present continuous? This is not a new idea of mine. I don’t have a copy to hand, but I think the idea was put forward in either Michael Lewis’s The English Verb or R. A. Close’s A Teacher’s Grammar (to which Lewis’s book owed much). If it’s not there, then I’d lay the praise / blame (delete as applicable) for the notion at the feet of Jimmie Hill, the ex co-owner of Language Teaching Publications who I used to work with!

Whatever.  The reason I mention all this is because when we were putting the Outcomes lower-level syllabus together, we inadvertently came up against the issue of whether we should teach the present continuous for future meaning or ‘be going to’ because it was felt (by the publishers, by editors, by readers) that the two should never be seen together as this would only confuse students. It seems that at Beginner level, the majority of books go for the present continuous, which means we can teach the most common question “What are you doing . . . tonight / this weekend?” but then can’t reply with things such as I’m going to have lunch or I’m going to study!

With Outcomes Beginner, we wanted to teach a future form earlier in the course than other books generally do, and were greatly encouraged to do so by Outcomes users in the UK who also felt it was important to do this because their students often feel socially isolated. They felt that not being prepared in class for conversations about the day ahead isn’t helping these students integrate.

We had already taught the phrase Where are you going? in the context of someone helping a person to use a ticket machine:

A; Where are you going?

B: Lausanne.

As mentioned in our previous post, from the point of view of the knowledgeable teacher, there may be some ambiguity as to whether this is an incomplete present or a future meaning, but from the point of view of the student, especially the student at a basic level, given the clear context, these differences really don’t matter. Accepting this, then, helps us accept that there is also ambiguity between the physical act of going and the signifying of an intention to do something. Look at the examples below and try to decide which describe the (unfinished) act of movement and which signify a plan (an incomplete action!). Good luck.

A: Hey! What are you doing here?

B: I’m going to the bank.

B: I’m going to the bank to change some money.

B: I’m going to see my bank manager.

Or what about in the responses to this question?

A: What are you doing now?

B: I’m just going home.

B: I’m going for lunch.

B: I’m going to have lunch.

B: I’m going to the library to study.

B: Nothing right now, but I’m going to meet a friend at 6.

It seems to me that rather than talking about the present continuous and be going to, we could instead refer to the pattern following ‘be going’ within the framework of the present continuous – though we atually don’t have to formally state it as a present continuous (yet).

Here’s the box / table we constructed to illustrate this pattern:

Plan Where / what When

I’m going

We’re going



to the gym

to the cinema


this afternoon

at 6



on Saturday

after the class

I’m going

We’re going


to have a coffee

to meet a friend

to see a film

to play football

We go on to teach the questions:

  • What are you doing (+ time)?
  • Where are you going?
  • What time are you going?

And we give space for students to ask other questions. Having taught a variety of question words, I think students could easily come up with the following (abeit with some ‘mistakes’):

  • When are you going?
  • Why are you going?
  • How long are you going?
  • How are you/we going?
  • Who are you going?

Clearly, this last one needs the addition of the preposition with. It would be up to you whether to correct this or not at this stage. I might be inclined to leave it at this point other than to repeat and use the question correctly in my interactions with students. It is highly unlikley that students will fail to communicate what they want with ‘who are you going?’ – or for that matter ‘who go?’ – and my primary focus at this stage is to encourage and enable.

Focusing on similarity, not difference: grammar, words and meaning

Having taught the idea that ‘be going’ can relate to a place or an action, this allows us to move on to It’s going to be nice later or It’s going to rain. Of course, we, as fluent speakers with a knowledge of grammar, would normally describe this as a prediction rather than a plan. But really, from the point of view of the listener, especially one with no great knowledge of grammar, is this distinction relevant or even present in their minds (indeed, is it present in the mind of any listener)? Obviously, it is not a plan in that it, a thing, weather or whatever don’t plan stuff! So we call it something else.

The point is that this distiction isn’t really inherent in be going, but instead it is a function of the words that go with it. The same thing happens with the individual words we teach. In his wonderful book Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations, Patrick Hanks draws attention to how a simple meaning of a word can actually represent a variety of quite distinct processes or things. So, for example, pulling a handle, a lever, a truck, his sleeve, the sticker off, me back, etc. all represent somwehat different acts.

In other words, there is a co-construction of meaning between the words in the phrase, based on some core quality that all these different instances of pulling share, which we may not be able to precisely articulate, but which we do not question. Isn’t really the same happening here with be going? If we accept that present continuous is ‘unfinished, (temporary), connected to now’, we have seen that there is a range of possibilities that includes meanings that are distinct – in progress before our eyes, ongoing (but not perceived at the moment of speaking), future events and a variety of inbetween examples.  There will be cases that are more obviously different to each other, but I’d argue that focusing on these different examples and articulating them as being separate and different is not as helpful or true as sticking to the most general meaning, drawing attention to patterns and providing lots of real-world examples.

And here’s one final thought. If be going to is a distinct form to the present continuous, how are be planning to, be hoping to, etc. distinct to the present continuous and be going to?  And what about be thinking of? And if you think they are different, what makes them different (apart from the general meaning and patterns of plan, hope and think)? And if anyone is going down the route of mentioning intentions and arrangements, you might want to read this post on future forms!

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4 Responses

  1. This is brilliant!

    Have already put this to use. It simplifies things immensely.

    It also reduces the chances of ‘will’ over generalisation.

    In other words, it strikes two targets with one stone

  2. Benjamin Brooks says:

    I agree that there is a tendency to over analyse form, eg ‘be going’, when such a focus on form would be less common with ‘pulling’ if they were analysed/presented as discrete items. And this, of course, is one of the main arguments for presenting language in chunks, but as to why it happens, I think there is an implicit need in language teachers and subsequently language learners to see a structure and need to attach meaning to it in order to categorise it as effective presentation of form in an attempt to define it and sometimes this approach needs to be evaluated. In this regard I agree with the post.

    “Focusing on similarity, not difference: grammar, words and meaning” – however, in order to focus on familiarity rather than, let’s say, a ‘contrastive’ language analysis between different structures, the language teacher/learner would need to have an awareness of these structural forms. Isolating language for comparative purposes is useful in this regard as it allows the grouping which will ultimately benefit learners as the post suggests and extra language at this point may cause unnecessary cognitive demand for learners, especially the lower level ones mentioned in your post. I think a focus on form + chunk should come before similarities are made as this would encourage language usage before language rules. To rush into categorisation to group language in terms of rules seems counter-productive when trying to escape this approach, at least earlier on in the teaching cycle.

    “not being prepared in class for conversations about the day ahead isn’t helping these students integrate.” – For me, this is the real value of the post, that the material addresses the perceived needs of the learners rather than the predefined values of a structural approach to teaching language.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Andrew Walkley says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree the key thing is trying to address learner’s needs. Our goal is definitely to think about how to enable a greater variety of conversations/exchanges that students may want and need to have from the beginning and it follows from that desire that you need to reconsider exactly what and how much grammar you need to give students – what’s the minimum? I believe that over time, through doing these kinds of ‘real’ interactions students will actually acquire grammar more effectively than if the syllabus had been developed around a structural syllabus, but I don’t make any great claims about that. The difference either way is going to be marginal. What’s more important to me, is the increased personal engagement that comes from encouraging more ‘useful’ or familiar interactions where the students are trying to be themselves in English.

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