He and his father were going to the Grand Canyon, then would spend a week rafting down the Colorado River, and finally go on to Disneyland.

This is a fragment from a book. The narrator speaks in the past tense about future. The trip mentioned in the fragment was planned in advance. So I understand why author used "were going". But it is followed by "would spend".

Does that mean the narrator is uncertain about whether the actions "a week rafting down the Colorado River" and "go on to Disneyland" will happen? And if not why did he use the present conditional?

2 Answers 2


Historically, "would" is the past of "will". Today it has other meanings as well, but this is case where that is its meaning.

"Were going" is the past of "are going",

"Would spend" is the past of "will spend".

So both are future-in-the-past.

  • I understand that fragment is about future-in-the-past. But I was asking about meaning. E.g. "I am going to Hawaii next summer" means that I am certain about going. And "I will go to Hawaii" isn't as certain as previous example. So does the author of the fragment mean that action "were going to the Grand Canyon" will certainly happen, and others actions will happen too but with less degree of certainty? Feb 28, 2016 at 19:56
  • 1
    I'm afraid you've been told an oversimplification. There is often no difference at all between "I'm going" and "I'll go": it is certainly not reliably the case that the first is more certain than the second. In this case, I think the difference is that "were going" is more immediate - they were already on their way, perhaps, or had at least started getting ready - and "would spend" is a littlie further away.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 28, 2016 at 21:32

I think in this case "were going" is being used to say "were planning to go"

He and his father were planning to go to the Grand Canyon, then would spend a week rafting down the Colorado River, and finally go on to Disneyland.

The original sentence doesn't mean the Grand Canyon trip happened in the past, but it suggests that the plans had already been made.

It's an unusual quirk of English, but we can use "were going" or "was going" to refer to a trip that hasn't happened yet, but we regard as certain to happen in the near future.

That was the last straw. She was going to the divorce lawyer that afternoon. She wasn't going to talk herself out of it this time.

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