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Learn How to Describe Past Intentions and Boost Your English Speaking Skills

Describing past intentions is an English speaking (and writing) skill that's more useful than you might expect.

Imagine that you were stuck on the subway for 30 minutes and your friend was waiting for you. You decide to call your friend to tell her that you will be late but while you are dialing your friend's phone number, your phone battery dies. When you arrive 30 minutes late, your friend is upset that you didn't call her to tell her you were late. What can you say?

In this case, you can use the past form of "be going to" and say: "I'm sorry, I was going to call you but my phone died." This will communicate to your friend that you had the intention of calling her. Often, it's useful for us to express our past intentions, especially when those intended actions didn't happen in the end. Think about how many times you planned to do something and couldn't do it - you usually want to express that you had planned to do it. You'll see several of these examples later in this article.



How to Express Past Intentions

The combination of "Be" + "going" + "to do" (infinitive verb) is how we often express future plans compared to right now:

  • Tomorrow, I'm going to attend my cousin's wedding.

  • I'm going to drive my friend to the airport.

  • I'm going to buy concert tickets tonight.

In the situations above, the speaker is describing their intentions for the future. However, imagine that these intended actions didn't happen because of a problem or change in the plans. In order to look back and describe these past intentions that didn't happen, you can change the "be" verb to past tense and say "I was going to..."

  • I was going to attend my cousin's wedding but I caught a cold and had to stay home.

  • I was going to drive my friend to the airport but I had car trouble so he had to take the bus.

  • I was going to buy concert tickets but they were sold out.

When we hear the phrase "I was going to..." it makes it clear that this did not actually happen, but it was an intention in the past. You can see that it's often followed by "but" and the real result.

Why not use "I wanted to..."?

Most students that I hear describe past intentions by saying "I wanted to..." but this does not describe an intention clearly. If I lived in New York and my friend's wedding was in Australia I can say "I wanted to go to his wedding" but this does not mean that I actually had intentions of going to it. You could even say things like "I wanted to win the lottery yesterday but I didn't" or "I wanted to get the job but I didn't" but that doesn't mean it was a plan or intention. Use "was going to (do)" to make it clear that this was actually a plan/intention in the past:

  • I was going to go to the gym today but I had too much work.

  • I was going to bring some wine but the wine shop was closed.

  • I was going to quit my job but my boss offered me more money to stay.

Using "end up" and "in the end"

If you want to give the real result, which is not your original intended result, you can use the phrasal verb "end up" or the phrase "in the end".

  • I was going to go the gym today but I ended up staying at the office late.

  • I was going to bring some wine. but in the end, I brought beer because the wine shop was closed.

  • I was going to quit my job, but I ended up getting more money so I stayed.

  • I was going to watch a movie but in the end, I was too tired and fell asleep after dinner.


Practice

Change the following future intentions into past intentions that didn't happen. Practice using "in the end" or the phrasal verb "end up" (in past tense = "ended up") to describe the real past result:

  1. I'm going to ask her on a date. = I was going to ask her on a date but I ended up getting too nervous and didn't say anything to her.

  2. I'm going to get a cat.

  3. I'm going to become a doctor.

  4. I'm going to go to bed early.

  5. I'm going to cook my dinner.

  6. My parents are going to visit us.

  7. My company is going to cut jobs.

  8. The government is going to raise taxes.

Possible Answers

  1. I'm going to ask her on a date. = I was going to ask her on a date but I ended up getting too nervous and didn't say anything to her.

  2. I was going to get a cat but I ended up getting a dog instead.

  3. I was going to become a doctor but in the end, I became a lawyer.

  4. I was going to go to bed early, but I ended up staying up until 2am.

  5. I was going to cook my dinner, but in the end, I ordered pizza.

  6. My parents were going to visit us. but they ended up staying at their home.

  7. My company was going to cut jobs, but in the end, they kept all their employees.

  8. The government was going to raise taxes. but they ended up changing their plan.



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