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Wishes and hypotheses

Level: intermediate


We use the verb wish or the phrase if only to talk about things which we want but which are not possible:

I wish I could see you next week.
If only we could stop for a drink.
I wish we had a bigger house.
They are always busy. If only they had more time.
John was very lazy at school. Now he wishes he had worked harder.

We use wish and if only with past tense forms:

  • We use past tense modals would and could to talk about wishes for the future:

I don't like my work. I wish I could get a better job.
That's a dreadful noise. I wish it would stop.
I always have to get home early. If only my parents would let me stay out later.

I don't like this place. I wish I lived somewhere more interesting.
These seats are very uncomfortable. I wish we were travelling first class.
I wish I was taller.
John wishes he wasn't so busy.
I'm freezing. If only it wasn't so cold.

  • After I/he/she/it, we can use were instead of was:

I wish I was/were taller.
John wishes he wasn't/weren't so busy.
I'm freezing. If only it wasn't/weren't so cold.

  • We use the past perfect to talk about wishes for the past:

I wish I had worked harder when I was at school.
Mary wishes she had listened to what her mother told her.
I wish I hadn’t spent so much money last month.

Wishes 1


Wishes 2


Hypotheses (things we imagine)


When we are talking about hypotheses, we use expressions like:

what if ... ? in case suppose (that) supposing (that) imagine (if/that)

We use these expressions:

We should phone them in case they are lost.
Those steps are dangerous. Suppose someone has an accident.

Imagine you won the lottery. What would you do with the money?
What if he lost his job? What would happen then?

Suppose you hadn't passed your exams. What would you have done?
What if he had lost his job? What would his wife have said?

Modal verbs

We use modals would and could for a hypothesis about the present or future:

We can't all stay in a hotel. It would be very expensive.
Drive carefully or you could have an accident.

We use would in the main clause and the past tense in a subordinate clause for a hypothesis about the present or future:

I would always help someone who really needed help.
I would always help someone if they really needed it.

We use modals with have to talk about something that did not happen in the past:

I didn't see Mary, or I might have spoken to her.
It's a pity Jack wasn't at the party. He would have enjoyed it.
Why didn't you ask me? I could have told you the answer.

We use would have in the main clause and the past perfect in a subordinate clause to talk about something that did not happen in the past:

I would have helped anyone who had asked me.
I would have helped you if you had asked me.

Hypotheses 1


Hypotheses 2




Hello BC Team,

please, why is "would have + past participle" used in the following examples? I believe, these sentences are not about unreal events in the past.

"Archaeologists say that, because some of these forts were so vast, they would have been dificult to defend, they must have been built for something else, ..... "
(they actually were difficult to defend I believe)

The typical ancient Greek farmer worked a relatively small patch of land; a house with perhaps two or three acres that would usually have been in his family for generations."
(they actually were in his family for generations I guess)

Just like today, people also spoke in their own localised dialect. These individuals would all have been able to understand each other, but regional differences existed, ..."
(they actually were able to understand each other I guess)
(all senteces taken from the book "The Ancient Greeks for Dummies")

I have heard, this structure is not only used for the opposite thing that actually happen (I would have seen him = I didn´t see him; They would have arrived = They didn´t arrive; etc.) but also for suppositon, conjecture, in this case the writer's or historians'. But I can´t find any information on this in grammar books (Murphy - English Grammar in use series; Swan - Practical English usage, and others). I haven´t found any information about this on the Internet either. Only on the third conditional type of sentences, which is crystal clear I guess.

Would it be ok to say "...they were difficult to defend...", "...that usually had been in his family...", "... were all able to understand each other ..."?
Can you explain this usage of "would have +PP". Is it also used in negative forms? Or do you have any tips, internet links, where I can find more info on this? Thank you very much.

Hello radovan,

Yes, you could certainly say '... they were difficult to defend ...' (etc.) instead of the forms you found in the book. This would be especially appropriate if there's evidence that these things took place.

There is a reference in Swan (629.3 'will: various uses' (3rd edition)) to using 'will' to 'express certainty or confidence about present or future situations' and 'will have' to refer to the past. Although I haven't found anything online or in my reference books on using 'would' or 'would have' in a similar way, since 'would' can be used as a past form of 'will', it does at least make sense that 'would have' could be used to express confidence about a hypothetical past.

I'm afraid I can't explain with full confidence why the writer chose a conditional versus a past simple structure - but I imagine they did so to emphasise that they were imagining how things must have been. Perhaps if they were referring to a specific event for which they had specific evidence, they'd have used a past simple form, but since here they are talking about a general situation (which has been proven by means of inductive reasoning based on specific evidence), they preferred 'would have' to show the imaginary nature of their statement. In other words, it shows that they are imagining how things must have been according to their understanding. As you say, it shows a supposition.

I hope this helps you make sense of it!

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again Radovan,

It would sound a bit strange (to me, at least) to use this form to refer to events that took place millenia ago; I'd choose 'would have' over 'will have'.

To be honest, I'm not completely sure why this is, but I suppose it's because 'would have' better suggests events that are so remote from our current experience. It's almost as if they are imaginary, even if we know they occurred.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team 

when I was studying I have read this example:
'I wish I didn't have to work tomorrow, but unfortunately I do'
why he didn't say 'but unfortunately, I will have to work tomorrow' and is it correct to say that?
also if he says example like this: 'I wish I didn't have to (travel or leave) tomorrow, but unfortunately I will have to (travel or leave) tomorrow' is it correct too?
Thank you,

Hello Mohamed ahmed fathy,

The 'I do' in this sentence does not refer to 'work' but to 'have to'. In other words, the full sentence would be:

I wish I didn't have to work tomorrow, but unfortunately I have to work tomorrow.

It would not be wrong to say:

I wish I didn't have to work tomorrow, but unfortunately I will have to.

This is because you can see the obligation (have to) as something which you already have or something which you will have tomorrow. It's a question of the speaker's perspective.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Mr Peter

I would like to ask a question regarding "as if" please?
" It was along time ago that we first met but I remember it as if it were yesterday". Is it more grammatically correct if I use " as if it had been yesterday" ? The reason being the sentence is in past tense so for something in the past we have to use past perfect after as if.


Hello Widescreen,

There is no need to change 'were' here. The remembering is now; the hypothetical present (not past) is 'were'. The speaker is talking about the present here (his current memory), not the past (the actual day), and the 'if' is part of a phrase meaning 'as though', not part of a conditional structure.

If the verb 'remember' was in the past ('remembered'), shifting the whole context into the past, then we might say 'had been'. 


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Here, how the meaning will change if we use ' as if it was yesterday ' in place of 'as if it were yesterday' .

Thank you very much for your explanation.

Another thing I would like to ask is on the topic of sequence of tense. I could not find any information regarding this on your site and I am interested in this because to use the tense in a simple sentence is not so difficult but I find it confusing with sentences that contain multiple clauses ( main and sub clauses). Your guidance on where to find the info would be much appreciated. thank you.