Future-in-the-Past

This unreal form is used for altered plans and failed predictions. In this case, the initial plan or prediction has become unreal, and that's the focus of sentences using Future-in-the-Past; the eventual, potential outcome of the intention or expectation is irrelevant here.

Future-in-the-Past might sound confusing – or at the least, contradictory – but it simply refers to past plans and predictions. At some point in the past, we thought or spoke of the then-future, which may or may not remain in our current future. Whether it does or not, the thoughts and remarks we once made about it are now in the past. 

You may want to check out the Future Forms page to see the different ways we can express plans and predictions.

Future-in-the-Past is often used for altered plans. Suppose that yesterday you decided, “I’m going to clean my bedroom today.” But then your friends called you and proposed getting together. That took most of the day, and by the time you got back, you didn’t have any time left to clean your room. So today, you explain “I was going to clean my room yesterday, but then I ran out of time.” 

Alternately, suppose that on Monday you said “I’m going to get a haircut on Wednesday,” but then your friend tells you how nice your hair looks now and convinces you to keep it how it is a while longer. On Tuesday, you might then say “I was going to get a haircut on Wednesday, but my friend convinced me not to.” Again, it doesn’t matter whether the planned event is now in the past, in the present, or still in the future. All that matters is that the intention is in the past.

was going to ← am/is going to

were going to ← are going to

would've ← will

We can also use Future-in-the-Past to explain why past predictions didn’t come true. For example, “The Wildcats would’ve won that last game, but their star player got injured in the first five minutes.” Notice that for both altered plans and failed predictions, it’s common to use ‘but’ and follow Future-in-the-Past with an explanation (or excuse).

Was/were going to and would’ve are only used if the plan or prediction did not come to pass, i.e. the potential outcome is now unreal; if the planned or predicted event actually happens, we generally use standard past tenses, perhaps with Verb Patterns if we want to focus on the intention or expectation more than the event itself. We can also use Future-in-the-Past if we are unsure of the outcome, which may be the case when reporting someone else’s plans.

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Will vs. Be Going To

Future-in-the-Past is generally a variation of either Will or Be Going To. Learn the difference between the two.
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Backshifting

Future-in-the-Past is essentially Future Forms that are Backshifted because they have become unreal.
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