wish + past simple v. wish + would

Discussion in 'English Only' started by laurahya, Jun 13, 2008.

  1. laurahya Senior Member

    BC, Canada
    British English
    Hello all,

    I was trying to explain "wish" sentences to a foreign friend but I got totally tangled up and realised I didn't actually know the answer myself. :eek: The problem is with the difference between wish + past simple and wish + would. I have looked around and already understand the usage to some extent, that is to say:

    WISH + PAST SIMPLE (I wish he was taller)
    Expresses a desire for the present situation to be different.

    WISH + WOULD (I wish my team would score)
    Expresses a desire related to the present or the near future, in which the speaker is dissatisfied, annoyed or impatient. This construction can't be used when referring to oneself (e.g. I wish I would work less :cross:).

    I understand that wish + past simple cannot be used when referring to a future action. What I can't get my head around (and can't explain to my poor friend!) is why we can sometimes use both constructions, e.g.

    I wish he ate more vegetables.
    I wish he would eat more vegetables.

    and why sometimes only wish + would is acceptable, e.g.

    I wish he hurried up :cross:
    I wish he would hurry up

    I appreciate any advice you can give me!
  2. jinti

    jinti Senior Member

    You may find this helpful (adapted from http://www.edufind.com/English/Grammar/IF10.cfm):
    You specifically mentioned:

    I wish he ate more vegetables.
    I wish he would eat more vegetables.

    I think the first means that I don't think the situation is changeable -- I wish he ate more vegetables but he doesn't, and that's that -- while the second means I think there's hope -- I wish he would eat more vegetables, so I'm going to nag him until he changes.

    Your other examples were these:

    I wish he hurried up :cross:
    I wish he would hurry up

    I think the first actually does work, but in the past perfect. (It's the second type of sentence mentioned in the quote I gave you -- a situation in the past that you don't like.) So it would be I wish he had hurried up (but he didn't so oh, well), and I wish he would hurry up (he could if he wanted to).

    I hope that helps. :)
  3. laurahya Senior Member

    BC, Canada
    British English
    I agree with you there; unfortunately, you could also say that about the past simple, e.g. I wish he visited more often. Couldn't you?

    Right, ok. I can see that, although it's awfully subtle!

    Hmmm. Yes, I understand the usage of would + past perfect, that's no problem. What I'm getting at is that in one situation (with the vegetables) you can use either the past simple or would, albeit with a slight change in meaning. With some situations you just can't: it's one but never the other. It's the reasoning behind the choice that I don't understand. :confused:

    Thank you so much for your explanations so far, things are starting to get clearer! Anyone have anything to add to this?
  4. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    He eats vegetables. :tick:
    He hurries up. :cross:

    Some verbs allow for this kind of habitual action statement.
    The verbs that do can be used in the structure "I wish he <past simple form> ..."
    He ate vegetables. :tick:
    I wish he ate vegetables. :tick:
    He hurried up. :cross:
    I wish he hurried up. :cross:

    Is it a question of transitive/intransitive verbs?
  5. laurahya Senior Member

    BC, Canada
    British English
    I don't think it's anything to do with transitive or intransitive verbs. You can equally say:

    I wish...
    he arrived on time / he would arrive on time (intransitive)
    he didn't hit the dog / he wouldn't hit the dog (transitive)

    However, you might be onto something with your point about habitual action (or perhaps state?). Are there any verbs that can't be used to express habitual action but can be used with wish + past simple? I've been trying to think of one but I'm having trouble with the first part!

    Also, I found this on a French website:
    Perhaps the point about the future is salient here.

    I wish this car went faster. (A general desire for the present state or general behaviour of the car)
    I wish this car would go faster. (A desire for the future behaviour of the car)

    It's another (very!) subtle point, but it might be relevant, especially in light of the hurry up example. Hurry up is valid as a future action, but not as a state or general behaviour of something. As you said, Panjandrum, it's impossible to say He hurries up.:cross:

    Any thoughts on this? Can anyone make it any clearer?
  6. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    Notice, however, that the wish contrary to fact calls for the subjunctive, and not the indicative. In most cases, the past subjunctive takes the same form as the indicative past simple, and it might be thought -- although inaccurately -- that it is an indicative past simple being used, when it is actually the subjunctive:

    I wish we had more money.
    I wish my parents understood me.

    For the sentence I wish he ____ taller , however, the subjunctive form of "be" and the indicative form of "to be" are not the same, and what you really want is not the indicative past, but the subjunctive. The past subjunctive of "to be" is were, and therefore what you want to write is I wish he were (and not "was") taller.
  7. laurahya Senior Member

    BC, Canada
    British English
    I take your point, but I think talking about the subjunctive here overcomplicates things (for learners, I mean), given that its form is almost always identical to other past tenses. It is easier to note "were" as an exception that learners simply need to recognise for comprehension purposes, and possibly produce in more formal writing. In fact, I would argue that these days it is perfectly acceptable to use the normal past simple of "to be" in these constructions. In my experience, I wish he was is a valid alternative to I wish he were. I personally vary between the two when speaking, and the only time I ever use one exclusively is in the expression If I were you, which is so ingrained as to be almost an idiom.

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