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I Have Plans

I Have Plans, vs. I Have a Plan [Advanced Natural English]

Quick Summary

When you are talking about doing activities, say “I have plans“, with an “s”, even if you’re talking about doing one activity.

When I hear non-native speakers make this mistake, I feel so bad for them, because it makes their English sound a little bit unnatural.

I’ve seen people with very high TOEIC and IELTS scores who still get this wrong, because it’s not at all intuitive. Let’s try to deconstruct why it’s such an unexpected ESL error.

First Off: What’s a Plan?

A plan is usually a detailed series of steps that achieves a goal.

Example: A recipe is a sort of plan, isn’t it? It tells you a series of steps, and those steps help you achieve a single goal. In this case, if you follow these steps, it will help you bake some cookies!

My Cookie Recipe
2/3 cups flour 3/4 cup butter
1 tsp. baking soda 2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. baking powder 1 egg
Step 1. Preheat oven to 200º C
Step 2. In a small bowl, stir flour, baking powder, baking soda
etc….

So, now that we know that a “plan” is a noun, we can understand that it’s possible to change that noun into a verb: planning, as in “I am planning to make cookies.” 

But once we’ve switched to the verb form, the meaning becomes ambiguous.

The Source of The Confusion

In our example, the exact same sentence can have two very different meanings. The two meanings are:

➡️ Meaning #1: I will not guess or experiment. I will follow a procedure.
When it comes to making cookies, I have plan!
As for making cookies, I have a plan!
 “I’m planning to make cookies.”

➡️ Meaning #2: I will spend some time doing this activity.
I intend to make cookies.
I’m going to make cookies.

“I’m planning to make cookies.”

In this example, there’s definitely a procedure. But when we perform any procedure, we are also inherently doing an activity at the same time! So, both Meaning #1 and Meaning #2 are true. Very tricky!

I think you’ll agree that we usually want to focus on Meaning #2, when we’re talking to someone else about doing activities.

In the verb from of “plan”, there is no distinct between these two meanings. The meaning of the sentence could be either Meaning #1 or Meaning #2 for these examples:

“I’m planning to…”
“He planned on…”
“We plan to…”

We need to infer and guess the appropriate meaning. However, when you switch to the noun form, we make a very clear distinction between Meaning #1 and Meaning #2. It’s important to get this right, if you want to sound like a natural, native English speaker.

Meaning #1: I will follow a procedure. I will not guess or experiment.
➡️ I have a plan.

Meaning #2: I will spend some time doing this activity.
➡️ I have plans.

What Does ‘I Have a Plan’ Sound Like, in Conversation?

When you say “I have a plan“, it’s Meaning #1, so you’re emphasizing that you are following a careful procedure of steps, and achieving a single goal.

We usually only say “I have a plan” when we’re talking about something that we think is very important. We use it to talk about something with a series of steps, that we think is a big event or a big idea.

“I have a plan to go to university and become a doctor.”

Diagram: A Plan to Go To Unversity and Become a Doctor

In this sentence, we can use “I have a plan” because we are talking about an important goal, and a big event/idea: Becoming a doctor. This goal requires a series of steps that happen in a sequence, such as:

  1. Getting accepted to a University
  2. Paying tuition to the university
  3. Studying
  4. Graduation
  5. Work as a resident at a hospital
  6. Become a doctor

However….

“I have a plan for Christmas.”

⚠️ When I read this sentence, and I see the singular form, “I have a plan”, I think you are talking about a single goal, an important procedure, and a big event/idea. This is very confusing, since you’re talking about Christmas.

Personally, when I hear someone say “I have a plan for Christmas”, it makes me think they’re going to do something evil.

An Easy Rule: Just Say “Plans”

So, when you’re talking about doing an activity, just always say “I have plans”.

If you’re doing 3 activities tomorrow, say “I have plans.”
If you’re doing 1 activity tomorrow, say “I have plans.”
If you’re intentionally doing 0 activities tomorrow, say “I have plans.”

Follow this simple rule, and you’ll be on your way to sounding like a native English speaker. This is one of the most common mistakes I see & hear when interacting with ESL people who have achieved a very high level of technical and business English, and have done very well on TOEIC and IELTS, but haven’t gotten feedback on this important everyday quirk of the English language.

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