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Does going to only express an intention and will some kind of prediction that doesn't necessarily happen?

EDIT: Thanks for all your answers. I asked this question because I always fail to complete exercises like this from an ESL book:

  • We will fly to Venice in June. (Correct: But, how can I be sure that I'm not sick in June?)
  • Philipp will be 15 next Wednesday (Correct: Since his birthday is a fixed day, this will happen).
  • They will get a new computer. (Wrong: Why?, If I need a new computer, I simply get a new one)
  • In 2020 people are going to buy more hybrid cars. (Wrong, Why? Who can tell for sure).
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4  
You can Google and find the particular exercise you're talking about on the web. In my opinion, these questions are complete nonsense; in seven of the ten examples, both of the constructions "be going to" and "will" are perfectly acceptable. –  Peter Shor Dec 3 '11 at 23:47

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Using will (or shall) is the proper way to form the actual future tense, and is completely generic. IT can be used in any case in which you wish to refer to the future.

Going to + verb is a shortcut construct that is commonly used in many situations. It is typically used to express occurrences in the near-future.

In many cases however, particularly in colloquial speech, the two constructs are virtually interchangeable.

Wikipedia has some additional notes on usage:

Going-to future is used when the speaker wishes to express certainty about the future based on evidence or fact from the present or the speaker's opinion: "If you do not stop, you are going to be caught by the police and hauled back to jail." "Our houses are going to be swept away by the impending storm." While the "will" and "going to" constructions are often interchangeable, only the "going to" construction can denote former future intention (e.g. "I was going to eat dinner, but decided not to").

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I find it extremely unlikely that I would ever say "Watch out! That car will hit you!". I believe that in this sentence, almost all native speakers of American English would use "That car's going to hit you." So while "will" can grammatically be used to form the future in any sentence, there are cases where native speakers will use "going to", other cases where they are going to use "will", and many cases where both constructions can be used by native speakers. –  Peter Shor Dec 3 '11 at 20:26
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I think the issue is that there is not really a "future tense" in English. There are a bunch of ways we can indicate the future, but none of them involve inflecting the verb like Present and Past tenses do, so they're constructions, not tenses. See, for instance, this discussion of the actual meaning of tense. However, the claims made about the differences in usage of will and gonna are entirely correct, if not completely comprehensive. A good reference is Bob Binnick's two papers in CLS. –  John Lawler Dec 3 '11 at 21:06
    
Biblio: 1) Binnick, Robert I. 1971. "Will and Be Going To." Proceedings of the 7th Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society 7.40-51. Reprinted 1974, in Werner Bauer et al., eds., Studien zur generativen Semantik, Frankfurt am Main: Athenaion, 118-30. 2) _____. 1972. "Will and Be Going To II." Proceedings of the 8th Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society 8.3-9. Reprinted 1974, in Werner Bauer et al., eds., Studien zur generativen Semantik, Frankfurt am Main: Athenaion, 131-37. –  John Lawler Dec 3 '11 at 21:07

As reported by the New Oxford American Dictionary, to be going to means "to intend or be likely or intended to be or do something; be about to."

I am going to be late for work.
She is going to have a baby.

Will and shall are used to express the future tense, and the following notes apply:

  • The traditional rule in standard English is that shall is used with first person pronouns to form the future tense, while will is used with second and third persons.

    I shall be late.
    She will not be there.

  • When expressing a strong determination to do something, the traditional rule is that will is used with the first person, and shall with the second and third persons.

    I will not tolerate this.
    You shall go to school.

  • In practice, however, shall and will are today used more or less interchangeably in statements (although not in questions). Given that the forms are frequently contracted (we'll, she'll, etc.), there is often no need to make a choice between shall and will, another factor no doubt instrumental in weakening the distinction. In modern English, the interchangeable use of shall and will is an acceptable part of standard U.S. and British English.

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Some ESL courses seem to have a strict set of rules for when to use "going to" and when to use "will" which don't reflect the way native English speakers use them. Much of the time, you can use either one of these constructions.

The way I use them, I say "going to" when I'm talking about plans that are being made, or I've just realized something is going to happen.

If she can't come home this summer, we're going to fly to Venice in June to see her.

Watch out! That rock is going to fall on us.

But you can certainly sometimes use "will" when something has been planned for a long time, and is definitely going to happen, even if there is no uncertainty about it. Almost everybody uses will when talking about the sun rising:

The sun will rise tomorrow at 6:43 am.

On the other hand, if you want to pass your ESL course, you may have to learn the rules it uses.

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There are three main future tenses in English, "will", "going to" and present continuous.

Will future is used for two things, prediction and spontaneous promises.

I will never walk on the moon (prediction)

I'll ring you tomorrow (spontaneous promise)

Going to future is used for predictions, especially based on immediate evidence, and plans.

He's going to fall! (prediction, based on immediate evidence)

I'm going to buy a new car next year. (plan)

Since your question was particularly about when not to use will, let me give a couple of instances. We don't say things like

? I'll buy a new car next year.

when we talk about plans, so that is one case where "will" is not used. Also if I saw someone tottering on a roof I probably would not say

? He'll fall

we normally use "going to" when there is some kind of immediate evidence.

By the way, the other future, present continuous used for the future, is used for appointments and other fixed plans:

I'm having lunch with Megan Fox tomorrow.

There are a lot more details but as I said in the comments you'd better look in a grammar book, because this site isn't exactly chock-a-block with ESL teaching experts. For complete details I strongly recommend "English Grammar in Use" by Raymond Murphy.

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This is complete tosh. You completely deny the interchangeability of the different constructions. And note, they are not all tenses. Only will + verb represents the actual future tense, and even that's debatable. –  Noldorin Aug 27 '10 at 15:23

I am going to be late tomorrow.
I will be late tomorrow.

I personally use them interchangeably, but the second way of saying it seems more forceful. (I am a native English speaker in America.)

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