How to Talk about Wishes in English
I wish I were at this beach right now.
A while ago I wrote a post about how to talk about hopes in English. If you’ve not read that one yet, I’d suggest checking it out, because these two posts focus on similar ideas, but this post will build on some of the ideas from the other one.
If you look up the words “hope” and “wish” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find that they’re very similar. And basically, they’re synonyms. They both mean something like “desire” or “want.” But that’s when they’re nouns. If you use them as verbs, we need to use them a bit differently.
Do you remember the structure for hope phrases from the other article? It’s normally something like this:
(Subject 1 – person with hope) (hope(s)) (that – optional) (Subject 2 – subject of hope) (verb – also present simple)
That looks a bit like some confusing grammar math, so let’s see some examples:
I hope I lose weight.
Sharon hopes she meets her favorite singer.
Now, remember, these are hopes. They are most commonly (but not always) used to talk about our plans or desires for the future. They are realistic and possible, even if they might not be probable. They use a form of the first conditional (check here if you need to review that), but they don’t really have a result.
OK, so now that we’ve reviewed that, let’s move on to wishes.
Even though the idea of a hope and a wish is the same, we need to change the structure a bit when talking about wishes.
Keep that in mind, because it’s important. We’ll use a form of the second conditional for wishes in the present (things that are not true, but we’re just imagining/wishing that they were true). And we’ll use a form of the third conditional for wishes in the past (things that did not happen, but we’re imagining they had happened differently).
This can get a bit complicated, so it’s more appropriate for intermediate or advanced learners.
Wishes in the Present
If I want to talk about a wish about the present, the structure is very similar to a hope phrase. I just need to change the verbs a bit. Here’s the structure:
(Subject 1 – person making wish) (wish(es)) (that – optional) (Subject 2 – subject of wish) (verb – in past simple tense)
Again, that looks dry, so let’s look at some examples. Notice that the kinds of verbs we use for hopes are normally short actions that can happen in the future. But for wishes in the present, we usually use verbs that indicate a long period of time. Some of the most common verbs to use with wishes are to be, to have, to live, to like, to know, and any other verb that is not really a short action.
Here are a few examples:
Tom wishes he spoke German.
(In this example, Tom doesn’t speak German, so we put the verb in the past to indicate it’s not real.)
Angelica wishes her mom weren’t so strict.
(In this example, we can see the one common exception. If you have any form of the verb “to be,” use the word “were” or “weren’t.”)
We wish English were easier.
(Here’s another example using “were” instead of the verb “to be.”)
My students wish they didn’t have to take exams.
(Here, the action is “take,” a “short” verb, but we’re avoiding problems by adding to modal “have to” to make it work with the wish phrase.)
I wish I could fly.
(Here’s another common difficulty. You may want to say “I wish I flew,” but that sounds strange. So here, focus on the ability. Can you fly? No, you can’t, but you wish you could. So just use the past form of “can,” “could.”)
Here’s a Pearl Jam song called “Wishlist,” which I like to use in my classes when we’re talking about wishes. And here are the lyrics, since some of the words are a bit hard to understand.
It has a lot of wishes, but note that there’s one really frequent “error.” Eddie Vedder (the singer) continually says “I wish I was…” But we already said that he should say “I wish I were…”, right?
Well, that’s true, but it’s a good illustration of how grammatically correct English is sometimes different from the way people say things in songs and in normal conversations.
So you can say “I wish I were taller” or “I wish I was taller,” but only the first one is actually considered correct or standard. And if you’re speaking in a formal situation, you should try to use “were,” not “was.” Just remember the Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here” when you’re unsure.
Wishes in the Past
I won’t go into as much detail here because the grammar can get a bit complex. But the main structure of a wish in the past is very similar to a wish in the present. The only difference is you need to change the simple past for the past perfect. So it looks like this:
(Subject 1 – person making wish) (wish(es)) (that – optional) (Subject 2 – subject of wish) (verb – in past perfect tense)
You can use a past wish when you’re unhappy with the way something happened in the past. For example, imagine that you were mean to your brother when you were a child, and you punched him when you were angry. But now you feel bad about that. You can say:
I wish I hadn’t punched my brother when we were kids.
That’s a pretty easy example, but you can imagine any other kind of situation when people want to express regret about past actions. For example:
The students wish they had studied more for the exam.
The bus driver wishes he had taken a different route.
These phrases can work alone, but you can also use them to introduce additional information with a third conditional phrase. For example:
The students wish they had studied more for the exam. If they had studied more, they might not have failed the exam.
The bus driver wishes he had taken a different route. If he had taken a different route, he probably could have avoided the traffic jam.
I definitely think that’s enough information for today, but let me know if you have any questions or comments by joining in the conversation below.
Also, in the coming weeks I’ll try to share more songs and activities that use hopes and wishes, so look out for them!
So for now, I hope this was useful and interesting for you. I wish it were easier, but I tried to make this all as clear as I could. Happy learning!
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