Using “wish” & The Subjunctive.

This is a lesson about the various uses of the verb “wish”. This lesson is part of a complete and free upper-intermediate English course. There is a presentation version of this lesson in the “materials” tab above. The exercises for this topic are here.


We can use “wish” to talk about imaginary or hypothetical or impossible situations, states & events.

Because these situations are imaginary, hypothetical or impossible we use a subjunctive form.

The subjunctive in English is subtle and often appears to be familiar tenses like the past simple or past continuous. 

A tip for using the subjunctive is to regress the verbal tenses back one conjugation. For example; If you are talking about the present (simple) in the subjunctive use the past simple. If you are talking about the past, use the past continuous.

Common uses of “wish”

We often use the subjunctive with;

  • 2nd Conditional – “If I were you I’d be careful!”
  • 3rd Conditional – “If I had known it was your birthday I would have got youa present!”
  • Expressions like
    • wish, “I wish I were a little bit taller!”
    • would rather, “I would rather you didn’t do that.”
    • would sooner, “I would sooner you didn’t eat with your mouth full!”
    • would prefer, “i would have preferred it if you hadn’t woken me up!”
    • it’s about time.”It’s about time you studied the subjunctive!”
    • If only. “If only we had a bit more free time!”

The Trick that Makes the Subjunctive Easy!

There are lots of complicated descriptions of the subjunctive in grammar books with countless examples of subjunctives for all different tenses, but you can skip ALL of that with one simple trick!

When we are talking in the subjunctive just use the verbal tense one behind the one that you need.

If you’re talking about;

  • An imaginary present use the past simple.
  • Something imaginary in progress now, use the past continuous
  • An imaginary past, use the past perfect.
  • Something in progress in the past, use past perfect continuous.

Imaginary present

If we want to talk about something imaginary in progress right now or around this time we can use what looks like the past continuous (remember, the subjunctive always appears to be one conjugation behind the tense that we are actually speaking in).

  • I wish I were lying on the beach right now!
  • I wish I wasn’t in English class now.

If I want to express that I would like to be taller, in the present, I need to use the subjunctive because this is impossible. As mentioned before, when referring to the present, the subjunctive appears to be the past simple;

  • I wish I were a little bit taller.

Notice that in the first example we use were instead of was, this is a peculiarity of the subjunctive in English, we can use were for all persons instead of was. If you want to you can use was, like in the second example, but “were” is more standard.

For imaginary past situations & regrets.

If we want to talk about the past in the subjunctive we use what looks like the past perfect;

  • I wish I had studied more for the exam.
  • I wish I hadn’t bought that jacket yesterday, I don’t really like it.
  • I wish I hadn’t said that. (past)
  • I wish I hadn’t bought that. (past)

Expressing Annoyance / complaining with “Wish”

If something annoys you, you can use wish + would + infinitive (without “to”) to express this annoyance.

Imagine that I have a friend who talks incessantly, I could say;

  • I wish he would stop talking sometimes!

It annoys me when people listen to music on the metro without headphones, so I could say;

  • I wish people wouldn’t listen to music without headphones on the metro.
  • I wish (that) you would stop doing that.
  • I wish you would be quiet.
  • I wish you wouldn’t smoke in the house.

“Wish” as a synonym of “Want”

If we are speaking in a formal sense, we can use wish as a synonym of want, it works the same in as much as we follow it with in infinitive;

  • I wish to complain about my recent experience at your restaurant.
  • I do not wish to be disrespected like that!

We can also use it with “for” to talk about things that we want;

  • Many migrants simply wish for a better quality of life.
  • I couldn’t wish for better neighbours.

In Common Phrases

There are lots of common expressions that use “wish” to express “good feelings” or good fortune. For example;

  • I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
  • I wish you all the best in your new job.
  • We wish you a happy birthday!
  • We wish you a speedy recovery.


Wish and Hope are similar but different!

We use wish for;

  • Impossible /  hypothetical situations.
  • To express annoyance.

We use hope for our preferred (usually realistic) outcome or results;

  • I hope to pass the exam!
  • I hope to see you soon.


Check your comprehension with the following interactive tests.