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I know "going to" and "present continuous" aren't always interchangeable. Are they interchangeable in this sentence:

Look! That plane is flying towards the airport. It [is going to land]/[is landing].

1

"Going to"—that is, the going-to future—and the present continuous are only interchangeable when used to talk about the future. For example:

I am meeting him on Monday.

I am going to meet him on Monday.

You can usually tell that a present continuous sentence is speaking about the future because a time in the future is specified somewhere in the context:

A: Do you want to go to the pub tomorrow?
B: I can't, I'm meeting Jane then.

Right now I can't think of a present continuous sentence that speaks about the future without also mentioning a time in the future. Using that rule, since your example sentence doesn't mention a time with the present continuous, it can be determined that the two are not interchangeable.

Specifically, your sentences would be interpreted as follows.

Look! That plane is flying towards the airport. It is going to land.

The plane is flying towards the airport, but it hasn't started to land yet.

Look! That plane is flying towards the airport. It is landing.

The plane is currently in the process of landing, but it hasn't landed yet.

  • It's a good answer although I would disagree that "going to land" definitely means it has not started the landing process. "Going to land" frequently implies it is "in the process of landing", unless there is some context to indicate otherwise. – Andrew Feb 13 '17 at 22:18
  • Well, all planes are "going to land," some just don't do it under their own power. – T.J.L. Feb 13 '17 at 23:52
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I'm not sure of a situation where "going to do" and "is doing" are interchangeable. I think you may be mistaking the future tense:

I am going to eat lunch now

with the present continuous of "to go"

I am going to the shop to buy some lunch.

The first example is still future tense. It doesn't describe something in process, only something I plan to do (in the very near future).

The use of "to go" in the present continuous in the second example is a little ambiguous, since English speakers like to reduce "I am going to go to ..." to just "I am going" even for future actions. You can't tell whether this is something I plan to do (in the near future) or something I am currently doing.

Example:

After work I'm going to go to the store to buy us some groceries.

After work I'm going to the store to buy us some groceries.

These two sentences mean the same thing.

However, in the context of your example, it wouldn't be natural to say, "that plane is going to go to land." So "going to" will be future tense.

That plane is going to land. (the plane will land in the near future)

That plane is landing. (it is in the process of landing)

Note also this depends on context. If I say a plane is "going to land", unless I give some additional context ("in two hours", "in Chicago", etc.) we would assume it is about to land.

  • Just my two cents: When the plane starts to descend, then it's "going to land," and when the wheels touch the ground, then it is "landing," but there's a narrow overlap (maybe starting five or ten seconds before the plane touches down?) where either wording could accurately describe the current situation. – J.R. Feb 14 '17 at 21:26
  • @J.R. But then pilots will talk about the "landing sequence" so I figure "landing" is the whole process. If I say "the plane is landing" it could be five minutes from landing or five seconds, but either way it's in the act of landing. If I say "the plane is going to land" I could mean whenever -- consider "that plane is going to land in Chicago" means some unspecified time in the future. But if I say "that plane is landing in Chicago" it means it's already in the process of landing. – Andrew Feb 14 '17 at 22:17
  • True; pilots and air traffic controllers may have different viewpoints than passengers and ground observers. Nothing is hard and fast about this. – J.R. Feb 14 '17 at 22:40

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