I wish I’d studied harder: Expressing regrets and wishes

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by Liz Walter

Nobody’s life is perfect, right? We all have things we’d like to change, or things we wish hadn’t happened. This post is about the way we express those feelings, and in particular the tenses we use, as learners of English (very understandably!) often make mistakes with them.

There are two basic phrases we use to express regrets and wishes: I wish and If only … .

When you are talking about situations that exist in the present, the strange thing you need to remember is that you talk about the situation in the past simple:

I wish I lived in a bigger house.

I wish my friends could be here.

If only I didn’t have so much work to do!

Students are often taught to use were instead of was after I wish or If only. This is correct (it’s the subjunctive), and it’s a good idea to write it in a formal situation, but in speech or informal writing, it is perfectly acceptable to use was:

I wish I were taller. (formal)

If only I was better at maths.  (informal)

Another way of talking about wishes in the present, is to use I wish / If only + would + verb. We use this structure to talk about things we would like someone or something to do. We often use it when we feel annoyed about something:

I wish Hannah would stop complaining!

If only this computer wouldn’t keep crashing!

Remember that you can’t use this structure about yourself or a situation that you are in:

I wish I would have more money.

I wish I had more money.

Now let’s move on to regrets about the past. For these, we use the past perfect. A common mistake is to use the past simple instead:

I wish I studied harder.

I wish I had studied harder. 

If only my car didn’t break down.

If only my car hadn’t broken down

However, with the modal verb could, we use the present perfect:

I wish I could have spent more time with him.

If only she could have come with us.

I hope this makes this rather complicated subject a bit clearer!

20 thoughts on “I wish I’d studied harder: Expressing regrets and wishes

  1. clientfirst11@gmail.com

    Your sharing is very interesting. I just would like to say something about the future situations. You don’t mention anything about that. If want to express my regrets about what I wish in the future, how will I make it?

  2. Mujahed Jadallah

    Thank you, Liz. With your step-by-step clarification, I’ve found the post literally unputdownable.
    I wish I could write as you always do. If only I were you! My writing is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy!
    Thank you again.

  3. Humaira

    It was really good for me because I want to learn English .and I could read and understand what have you written.
    So thank you so much .

  4. NinaHalloween

    This is all you have to know about this grammar point. Excellent and simple. That’s why we like you and your work so much. It is a real pleasure to read each, improve knowledge, build up vocabulary, polish language skills. We are profoundly grateful!

  5. RuizGarcía

    In these examples: “I wish I could have spent more time with him” and “If only she could have come with us” we are not technically using the present perfect, are we?

      1. RuizGarcía

        First of all, thanks for the reply.

        Secondly, I would call it “perfect infinitive” or something like that, because modal verbs, to the best of my knowledge, are followed by bare infinitives, which means, for instance, that we cannot say or write “If only she could has…” as we would if we were actually using the present perfect

  6. rose

    please,I also want to learn how to speak English fluently, how do I learn because I find it difficult to speak fluently. thanks

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