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.
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!