“I’m going to work”

You wake up and complete your morning routine. You say to your partner:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting in your car/bus/train. Your phone rings. Someone asks you where you are. You say:

I’m going to work!

You are sitting at your desk at 9.02 reading a non-work-related website. Your boss passes by and reminds you of the time. You say:

I’m going to work!

In the first two contexts, going has its primary meaning of ‘movement from here to there’, but the time referred to by the verb tense is different. In the second sentence, present continuous has its primary meaning of an action in progress at the time of speaking. In the first, it is used to mean ‘in the near future’. Even adding ‘now’ to both sentences doesn’t change that: ‘now’ can mean ‘now’ or ‘in the near future’. Even ‘right now’ can mean ‘in the very near future’. On the other hand, we can add a future time reference to the first and third sentences: I’m going to work in a few minutes!

In the third sentence, present continuous again means ‘in the (very) near future’, but there is no sense of movement. I’m going to work right here at my desk. I can add in a few minutes, but I can’t add now.

The differences don’t stop there. In the first two sentences, work is a noun and to is a preposition, while in the third, work is a verb and to the infinitive marker. We can test that by creating parallel sets of sentences: I’m going to dinner (noun) and I’m going to eat (verb); I’m going from work and I’m coming to/from work. The last two sentences simply don’t work in the third scenario, in which we can only change to I’ll work (soon/in a moment). Also, in the first scenario, we can say just I’m going! In the second, we’d probably say I’m on my way, but in the third, saying I’m going is just not possible.

Going to for the future began as the full sentence I am going (somewhere) (now) (in order) to (do something) in the near future. That eventually got whittled down to the current I am/I’m going to (do something). Most varieties of English allow I’m gonna/gunna (do something) in casual speech, and some even allow Ima (do something).

The first two sentences are actually present continuous, but the first is implicitly about the future. In fact, we often add a future time reference to explicit talk about the future: I’m going to work in a few minutes, I’m going to dinner after work. In either case, the future time is very close. [be] going to is a special form of present continuous, followed by a full infinitive verb. The time span can be longer; compare I’m going to Europe (implicitly, soon) and I’m going to go to Europe (at some time in the future).

English has no unambiguous ways to talk about the future. All our ‘future’ forms actually refer to our present decisions, plans, predictions, expectations or wishes.

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