Jack comes home from work and looks at his small flat which he rents in Melbourne. “It’s not bad,” he thinks to himself, “But I wish I were rich. Then I could just go and buy my own place by the sea!”
It’s quite possible you learnt the grammar of making a present wish as follows:
“I wish I were rich” -> ‘WISH’ + PAST SIMPLE
But then you probably also got a bit confused in class:
“If it’s with the past simple, why isn’t it I was..?”
A good question!
In short, it’s because it isn’t the past simple indicative form, but rather the past subjunctive mood.
In other words, to talk about a present wish we use a different verb form:
“I wish I were rich” -> ‘WISH’ + PAST SUBJUNCTIVE FORM
The Indicative Verb Form v. Subjunctive Verb Form
The indicative verb form is what you’re already familiar with. For example, the past simple indicative for the verb be is as follows:
He | She | It was
The past subjunctive form for the verb be is as follows:
He | She | It were
Yes, the past subjunctive form uses I were.
The indicative verb form is to express statements and facts.
The subjunctive verb form expresses mood, doubts and wishes. However, most coursebooks will not mention it in order to make English ‘simpler’ to learn, but I believe it creates problems later on for learners of English not to have a fuller picture of our language.
As well, because the subjunctive isn’t as ‘separate’ or distinct from the indicative in English compared to French or Spanish, I think most coursebooks have decided to provide a different explanation of constructions like this one.
One top of this, usually the conjugation for the two verb forms is the same:
Eg “I wish I had a car.”
As I’ve just shown, however, the verb be is different in its past subjunctive form, and that’s what I’m concentrating on today.
Some Examples Of I Wish I Were..
Here are some examples using wish followed by the past subjunctive form of be:
1. I’m not tall but I’d like to be: “I wish I were tall.”
2. You can’t come to the party. Your friend calls you up and you say: “I wish I were there!”
3. An example From Twitter:
I wish I were here… Ooh! Beautiful world… pic.twitter.com/aKFoc2Nxut
— Teenage Dreams (@GossipsNMore) June 21, 2015
The negative form, by the way is:
I wish I weren’t so popular.
Top Searched Wishes
I found some other common I wish I were expressions on google.
Can you guess in which situations they could be used..?
a. I wish I were dead.
b. I wish I were joking.
c. I wish I were kidding.
d. I wish I were like you.
e. I wish I were more.. (intelligent, attractive)
f. I wish I were mad.
g. I wish I weren’t so tired all the time.
h. I wish I were in love.
i. I wish I were prettier.
j. I wish I were strong enough.
k. I wish I were skinnier.
l. I wish I were there with you.
Was v. Were
Some people do say I wish I was rich. In fact, many do. How come?
1. It’s possible that some English speakers don’t know about the subjunctive form or that it’s not used in their particular region.
2. They might see the particular situation they’re talking about as an indicative event (ie more fact-based rather than describing mood or desire).
Here are two examples which I hope show the difference between the indicative I was and the subjunctive I were:
bonjour Cannes 😘😘 pic.twitter.com/NCp09iKJqQ
— Kelly Brook (@IAMKELLYBROOK) May 18, 2015
Actress Kelly Brook got a call from a journalist wanting to know if she was dating Hollywood actor Jack Gunston. She told her best friend afterwards:
“The nerve of that journalist! I can’t believe they wanted to know if I was dating Jack!” [WAS is used as it relates to fact, information, reality]
She then went on to tell her friend: “If I were with Jack, I certainly wouldn’t be telling them!” [WERE is used as it is contrary to the facts of the matter ie it’s not true, and therefore she is just hypothesising or imagining what she would do if she were with Jack].
Do you see the difference..?
Here’s another example. In this Bruce Springsteen song, each time a guy sees the girl he likes with another man, he says: “I wish I were blind.” Check it out!
Why Do You Use A Past Form?
Finally, students often ask why this present wish construction uses a past form. The short answer is that using the past subjunctive shows that it is not ‘real’ or not part of reality, that it is distant from reality [Michael Lewis gives a good explanation of this in The English Verb].
Other Subjunctive I Were Patterns
As it were
This is a bit like saying ‘in a manner of speaking’ or ‘in a way’ or ‘so to speak’:
“To throw away an honest friend is, as it were, to throw your life away” — elikem Kumordzie (@ElikemTheTailor) June 11, 2015
then she continued to burn all of his pairs of pants a jeanocide, as it were,
— vanessa parker (@vanessaparkour) June 11, 2015
If I were you…
Students often become familiar with if I were you at beginner or pre-intermediate level, as a way of giving advice. Usually there’s a similar construction in their native language:
You’ve got an addiction, madam. If I were you, I think I’d stop reading ‘Extreme Park Bench Yoga’ for starters: pic.twitter.com/XTBzcc2700
— Jon Ryder ✪ (@fullstopnewpara) June 9, 2015
it’s alright i understand why everyone leaves me because if i were you, i’d do the same too
— Fina (@fvnanr) June 9, 2015
One More Song To Hit The Road
Here’s a bit from Beyonce called ‘If I were a boy’. Do you know it..?
Over To You
What are your biggest wishes? Do you wish you were rich..? Do you wish you were dating a Hollywood actor..?
What would you do differently if you were a boy or a girl..?
More On Get Into English
If you’re not fully sure yet about this today, you can choose to see grammar structures as lexical units, ‘pieces of vocabulary’ that you can memorise. Because quite often a grammar structure can also be seen as a phrase. For example: