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What are the guidelines for usage of “will” and “is/are going to”?

I am an ESL teacher in Thailand at a business college. I have been plagued with the distinction between, "(be) going to " and "will" for the future tense. In my former life, I worked in IT and Telecommunications. My conclusions about any distinction(s) are the following:

1) Any distinction is not really grammatical, but more under the banner of usage 2) It is possible to communicate effectively in the future tense while using the two forms interchangeably.

There may be circumstances where one form is "more desirable" over the other, but both would seem grammatically correct. One book that the administration is forcing me to use at gunpoint, is a piece of feces titled "Interchange" published by Cambridge University Press. They represent the distinction between "will" and "going to" as a maybe and certainly with respect to plans. Baffling because I can not find any other references.

Considering the lack of competency in English of the average Thai speaker; myself as a native speaker who is not attentive to the distinctions but on occasion, does manage to effectively communicate and do so in a somewhat elegant manner — is it worth emphasizing the relative interchangeability of the two forms, rather than the minor distinctions in usage of the two forms. I say minor, because if the distinctions are not made, very effective and accurate communication by a non-native speaker is still able to be accomplished without drawing a distinction.

My concern being that the weight given to this relatively minor footnote in meaning (usage), is deceptive and may confuse rather enlighten anyone other than an expert non-native speaker.

This may seem rather trivial but could you weigh in on this?

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marked as duplicate by jwpat7, Mitch, tchrist, Mahnax, Matt Эллен Aug 25 '12 at 11:16

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Could you provide a couple of example sentences showing the two alternative usages? –  Jim Aug 15 '12 at 8:21
    
As far as I can tell, your mastery of my language surpasses that of most recent American MBAs. Your two conclusions are spot-on. Tell your administration that you are the resident authority on this matter and you're damned if you'll be dictated to by self-aggrandizing bureaucrats. –  StoneyB Aug 15 '12 at 11:01
    
    
Also — and this is getting off-topic, but since you mentioned you are a teacher I think I have to point it out —, in English, the space goes after commas, periods, and question marks, never before them. –  RegDwigнt Aug 15 '12 at 17:51

2 Answers 2

There's already a thread explaining the difference between "will" and "going to" called What are the guidelines for usage of “will” and “is/are going to”? which you should check out for more info.

As to the books - I can agree with you on that. It's very difficult to be a pedantic ESL teacher. The books for foreign learners very often generalize difficult problems into a few simple rules, as they don't expect these people to (at that current situation) be needing all the insight, which, let's be honest, comes only with experience.

Therefore, a book may clearly state that X stands for A and Y stands for B, period. There's just so much time a foreign learner may spend on a topic.

It's sad, but it's true. I remember a book for foreign learners released by Oxford University Press, which stated that "each other" should be used for 2 persons and "one another" should be used for more than 2!

So keep up the good work, keep asking questions and also keep answering them and I'm sure you'll be the best teacher these students can get, there's just so much a person can do.

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There's a danger in emphasizing the interchangeability of the two structures, especially when teaching ESL learners.

Sure there are instances when there isn't much difference between using one and the other. For example, in predicting the future:

I think the weather will be nice.

I think the weather is going to be nice.

But especially when talking about future actions, we use:

be going to = when we have already decided to do something

Ex.

I'm going to take a walk.

What are you going to do this evening?

Are you going to join them?

will = when we decide to do something at the time of speaking

Ex.

A: Have you heard? Pete's in hospital.

B: Oh really? I didn't know. I'll go and visit him.

As you can see, it wouldn't really be natural if you interchanged them here.

I mentioned risk because non-native speakers tend to apply only the simplest, shortest, and easiest forms. This explains the predominance of the Present Simple over Present Continuous Tense in their sentences. And that of the Future Simple (will) over Be Going To, Future Continuous (will be v+ing) and Present Continuous with future meaning.

Needless to say, easy forms are preferred regardless of their suitability to context.

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I think your pedagogic principle is very sound, but I disagree with some of your usages, especially your counter-example. "Pete's in the hospital? (then) I'm gonna go visit him" sounds perfectly natural to me. On the other hand, I think there is a real distinction in conditional clauses: 'will' cannot replace 'going to' in "If I'm going (or if I am going) to visit Pete, I'd better take him some good books". I now think this needs a lot more discussion - would it make more sense to move it to the question Frantisek points to? –  StoneyB Aug 15 '12 at 15:57

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