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I've been through several books for teaching English as a foreign language, and these structures are usually presented as exact synonyms. But isn't there a difference?

Just by looking at the verb tense, I'd say that using Present Simple gives the idea that the speaker thinks it is likely to rain, whereas using will places the possibility of rain in the realm of 'unlikeliness'.

Am I on to something here or am I just splitting hairs? Honestly, I feel awkward telling my students 'yeah, they're interchangeable just like the book says' when I'm not convinced.

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I'd never much thought about it. Reading your reasoning, it seemed like you might be onto something. However, I'm imagining my wife (an avid gardener, who therefore often hopes for rain) saying this, trying to figure out if she might choose one phrasing over the other based on her knowledge of the weather forecast. Unfortunately for your theory, I think she'd be apt to say, "I hope it rains" irrespective of what the weatherman said that morning, simply because it's more concise. So maybe the books are right. –  J.R. Dec 11 '12 at 18:54
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You could also say "I hope it's going to rain" or, less formally, "I hope it's gonna rain." –  Robusto Dec 11 '12 at 19:04
    
@Robusto: I'd never thought about that, but I suppose it makes perfect sense to change between future 'will' and the future 'going to'. For as long as it is future, which ever feels more natural is the one to favour. –  Sara Costa Dec 12 '12 at 10:53
    
Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/60799/8019 –  TimLymington Dec 13 '12 at 23:18
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

English has no future tense, but expresses the future in various other ways. One of them is will + plain form of the verb (‘I hope it will rain’) and another is the present tense (‘I hope it rains’). Both are grammatical, but the second is what most native speakers will say in most contexts.

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That's true with hope but with think the preference is for "I think it will rain tomorrow." (not my downvote btw) –  Jim Dec 11 '12 at 18:58
    
@Jim. Yes, but the OP wasn't asking about think. –  Barrie England Dec 11 '12 at 18:59
    
I guess I was just trying to point out that will + verb is used quite often, so while present tense may be what most natives would say when using hope, it is, I think, not what most natives would say in general for expressing future. –  Jim Dec 11 '12 at 19:11
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@Jim. They do when they're talking about arrangements. Tomorrow I fly to Amersterdam and then I go on to Brussels. I come back to London at the week-end, then I'm off to New York on Monday. –  Barrie England Dec 11 '12 at 19:41
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As a general case, there isn't much difference, for the reasons that Barrie and other comments mention. However, I have heard "I hope it rains" but not "I hope it will rain" used in a spiteful sense, similar to "rain on one's parade". For example, perhaps because of its greater simplicity, only the former works idiomatically in: “My ex-girlfriend and my brother are getting married in the park tomorrow; I hope it rains.”

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While I agree that the two sentences are mostly synonymous, I believe we are more likely to use "I hope it will rain" if it is a response to a sentence like, "Peter said it won't rain" because users might find it comfortable to pair "will" and "won't". This also emphasizes a direct opposition to the first statement.

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In those circumstances, isn't the response just as likely to be I hope it does? –  Barrie England Dec 12 '12 at 8:26
    
Yes. "I hope it will" and "I hope it does" would be about as likely but also different slightly to "I hope it rains". I only compared the two sentences given in the question because this would be a situation where one of the two would be preferable (and I think she wanted to differentiate the two) but this doesn't exclude other sentences also being a possible response. –  James B. Dec 12 '12 at 8:49
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