Grammar Lesson: Wishes and Regrets

Have you ever done something in the past you wish you hadn’t?
Do you wish you were shorter or taller? Thinner, or bigger?
Do you ever find yourself wishing for something that is extremely unlikely, almost impossible?

Perhaps there is something bothering you in the present that you would like to change?

From Intermediate upwards, learners of English find themselves using ‘wish’ through a number of different tenses. Sometimes it can be a little confusing about when we are supposed to use this word and with which form of a verb. Let’s take a look at the following sentences.

1. “I wish I had eaten a bigger breakfast. I’m so hungry!”
2. “I wish I was taller”
3. “I wish I could fly to the moon and back”
4. “I wish Jessica would stop talking”

If we direct our attention to the first sentence, we can see the most typical use of ‘wish’ in English. In this example, the speaker is talking about a situation in the past they cannot change. The basic formula for this use of ‘wish’ is outlined below.

Subject Pronoun + ‘wish’ + Subject Pronoun + Past Perfect + Object
I wish I had eaten a bigger breakfast    
Here’s another…
I  wish I had visited the Eiffel Tower

Just like the first example, the second sentence is similar because the speaker is referring to something in the past. They regret their decision to not visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris and cannot do anything in the present to change this behavior.

Let’s take a look at the second sentence in bold. Notice that here, the speaker is not referring to an action in the past. Instead, they are talking about something they dislike about themselves in the present. Take a look at this grammatical formula.

Subj. Pronoun + ‘wish’ + Subj. Pronoun + Past Simple + Adjective and/or Object
I wish I was taller
Here’s another…
I wish I had brown hair

From our third sentence, we see the use of ‘wish’ with a modal verb, could. In this example, the speaker is referring to something unrealistic and imaginary. Therefore, if there is something you would love to happen, but at the same time you are certain it will not, use the modal verb could in a similar structure to that found in our first sentence. The only difference, is that we are replacing the past perfect with could + an infinitive form of the verb.

Subj. Pronoun + ‘wish’ + Subj. Pronoun + ‘could’ + Infinitive Verb + Object
I wish I could fly to the moon and back
I wish I could play professional soccer

Finally, we come to our fourth sentence. It is clear that the speaker is angry with Jessica. Maybe they cannot concentrate whilst studying. Perhaps, Jessica has an extremely loud voice. Whatever the reason, the sentence is referring to an event in the present and tells us that the speaker is feeling irritated or annoyed. For this context, we use a new modal verb: ‘would’.

Subj. Pronoun (I) + ‘wish’ + Subj. Pronoun + ‘would’ + Infinitive Verb + Object/Gerund
I wish Jessica (she) would stop talking
I wish Daniel (he) would eat his vegetables

There we have it! By studying the grammatical rules above, you too can share with classmates some of your own wishes and regrets!

Smith, H. 2012.