Will vs. be going to

 

Q:

What is the difference between will and going to as in “I’ll go to town” and “I’m going to go to town”?

Batya
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A:

A quick answer to your question about the use of will vs. the use of be going to is that will expresses an action the speaker is willing to perform and has the intention to perform; the speaker may have just decided to express his/her intention. On the other hand, going to expresses something that the speaker has already planned to do. It’s necessary to put your sentences in context to see the difference.

One situation in which will (but not going to) is appropriate is to make an offer:

Don’t carry that big bag of groceries, Mrs. Jones. I’ll take it for you.

If you want to sell your car, I’ll buy it for $10,000.

I’ll go to town—to the pharmacy—right now if you need that medicine immediately.

Another situation where will (but not going to) is appropriate is to make a promise:

I’ll finish this work by 7:00 tonight.

I’ll call you later.

I’ll go to town for the big celebration if my team wins the championship.

On the other hand, you can use going to (but not will) to express a prior plan:

We’re going to take our vacation in the winter this year, not the summer. We’ve already planned a trip to Antarctica.

Sorry I can’t be at work next week—I’m going to have minor surgery.

I’m going to go to town next Thursday—my class is having a reunion at the Central Hilton. I’ve bought a new outfit and I’m very excited about it.

The last three sentences are also frequently expressed with the present continuous—We’re taking, I’m having, and I’m going.

Some clarifying examples appear in a paper, “Future Shock” by Marilyn Martin (the paper appeared in On TESOL ’78: EFL Policies, Programs, Practices. Washington D.C.: TESOL, 1978).

Martin notes the difference between the following two conversational exchanges:

(a)

A: What about your mother’s birthday?
B: I’m going to get her a new mop.

(b)

A: What about your mother’s birthday?
B: I’ll get her a new mop.

As Martin explains in sentence (a), “speaker B is reporting a prior decision,” while in sentence (b), “he is making what seems to be a spur-of-the-moment decision as he speaks.”

She continues:

“In order to test this intuitive judgment, however, let us consider the conversation one could have with oneself, as in

What can I get my mother for her birthday? Oh, I know! I’ll get her a new mop.

X Oh, I know! I’m going to get her a new mop.

There emerges here the impression that the be going to future carries a sense of prior decision that is lacking in will.”

This is only one example of a difference between will and be going to. There are other meaningful factors to consider when choosing the ways to express future time (Martin clarifies them in the article mentioned above). For the question that Batya asked, however, it seems that the choice can be made based on whether the context expresses volition (one's choice, intention at the moment, will) as in "I’ll go to town" or the intention to do something because of a prior plan as in "I’m going to go to town."

See also a related discussion in the message on "Will."

 

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