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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 Widescreen,

The use of different tenses is combination depends upon what the speaker wishes to say and the context of the utterance, not the clauses in the sentence. You can break a complex sentence into separate sentneces and the tenses will very rarely change, as the context remains the same.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

A few online materials mentioned that when the tense in the main clause is past tense, the tense in the sub clause must be in according past tense except for when the speaker is talking about something which is a universal truth or habit. But I have come across example whose sub tense does not fall within any of the mentioned above. Eg: " He SAID he WILL be ok / or : He said he IS ok. SO Iam confusing as to whether there actually any sequence between small sentences in a complex sentence. Kindly clarify this for me. Thank you.

Hello Widescreen,

We do not comment on what other sites or sources may say. Which tenses/verb forms are appropriate depends upon the meaning being expressed and the particular structure of a particular sentence, not whether or not it is a complex sentence.

Your examples are both examples of reported speech and you can find information on this topic here. Take a look at that page and I think you will find the information that you are looking for.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

"Mary is afraid she won't be able to attend your wedding next week. " Can I rewrite the above sentence in either way as follow:
1. Mary wishes she would be able to attend your wedding next week
OR; Mary wishes she could attend your wedding next week.

Hello Widescreen,

'Could' is the correct form here. The original sentence describes ability ('able to'), not preference, and 'would' here would suggest a preference (not wanting to go) rather than ability (not being able to go).


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks for your explanation.
But the original sentence uses future tense "won't" and for future wish we use the formula "would + bare infinity". Hence, if we rewrite" Mary wishes she would be able to...." should be correct as this is the wish in the future. Please help me clarify where my explanation went wrong. thanks

Hello Widescreen,

Using 'wish' is actually a bit complex.

1) In general, you can use 'wish' + the past simple tense to talk about situations that you see as impossible or unlikely. For example, 'I wish I lived in the mountains'. If I say this, it means that I don't think it's possible for me to live in the mountains, at least at the present moment (maybe I need more money, etc.).

2) If you want to wish about things that do seem possible, you should use 'hope' + present simple tense instead. For example, 'I hope I pass the exam'. This means I think it's possible.

3) You can use 'wish' + 'could' or 'would' to talk about something in the present that you don't like and would like to change. For example, if it's raining and you don't like that, you could say 'I wish it would stop raining'. By saying this, you suggest that you don't think your wish will happen.

By the way, you can find a bit more about this on our Wish and If only page.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Widescreen,

In sentences like the one you ask about, the tense of 'wish' simply reflects the time you made the wish, i.e. 'I wish' is a present wish and 'I wished' is a past wish. The past simple of the verb after 'wish' (in this case 'knew') is different - it doesn't refer to a past time, but rather refers to something unreal or hypothetical.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello. I didn't understand this sentence "I sometimes wish i`d had a sister". Please, tell me is it "would" or "had" and why we use past simple.

Hello alexandra_a,

The 'd here is 'had'. It is an example of the past perfect (had + past participle) and it is 'had had' here as the past participle of 'have' is 'had'.

This sentence refers to an imaginary past: the speaker did not have a sister (real past) and is thinking about what would have been if he or she had had a sister (unreal past). It is similar to a third conditional sentence.


Best wishes,


The LearnEnglish Team