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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 Adamfirstttt,

In conditional sentences, we use modal verbs like would (have) in the result clause, not the condition clause; in the condition clause we use a normal verb form in whatever tense or aspect is appropriate.


In your first example, the result clause is omitted and there is only the condition clause. If you add a result clause then you could use use 'would have':

I can't believe you paid for your car in cash. What if someone stole it, what would you do then?

I can't believe you paid for your car in cash. What if someone had stolen it, what would you have done then?


In your second example, would have is used in the result clause:

Imagine you had been born a hundred years earlier. Do you think you would've been happy?



The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot Peter

This is the questions that is always in my mind but nobody has answered yet.
Long but don't be afraid.

There is a sentence. (1) If he can be more brave, he will confess to her.
If this (1) is backshifted, can it be like this? (2) It was clear that (or His brother said) (1-1)If he could be more brave, he would confess to her.

The point is this; if a indicative conditionals is backshifted and as a result when the main clause has the past auxiliary, then it has the exact type of 2nd conditionals, but the first sentence before backshifted was not 2nd conditionals. If then, should I discern both meaning(indicative or hypothetical-open or closed) in terms of the context? Or is there something more than I know? The follows are as far as I know about them.

In my humble opinion, I can't understand how (1) can be backshifted to (1-1) without avoiding the ambiguity between indicative and 2nd conditionals. If then, the meaning or proposition of (1) and those of (1-1) is far different, I think.

In addition to that, I think the "would" in (1-1) should not be used or expressions other than "would" can be used there, for example, using simple past with no past auxiliaries(confessed), or using adverb like probably(probably confessed)

If you had more patience, would you please check this out, too?

Sentences (1) and (2) below have the form of 2nd conditional, which is unreal at the time of utterance (In this text, the time is past, which is natural in grammar and usage in my intuition). However, some instructors (who explain the paragraph below) say that though (1) and (2) have the same sentence structure, (2) is interpreted as the possible past (real), which means 'Picasso' could have gotten warmer ~ or not and the author still doesn't know the two possibilities. But, I don't, cannot buy that. But they insist that the interpretation is possible, depending on its context. What do you think of this? Moreover, I don't know why (1) is not mentioned as having the same intention like (2).

(1)If creators knew when they were on their way to fashioning a masterpiece, their work would progress only forward: they would halt their idea-generation efforts as they struck gold. But in fact, they backtrack, returning to versions that they had earlier discarded as inadequate. In Beethoven’s most celebrated work, the Fifth Symphony, he scrapped the conclusion of the first movement because it felt too short, only to come back to it later. Had Beethoven been able to distinguish an extraordinary from an ordinary work, he would have accepted his composition immediately as a hit. When Picasso was painting his famous Guernica in protest of fascism, he produced 79 different drawings. Many of the images in the painting were based on his early sketches, not the later variations. (2)If Picasso could judge his creations as he produced them, he would get consistently “warmer” and use the later drawings. But in reality, it was just as common that he got “colder.”

Hi ,
What is difference in meaning if you say :
I wish i could have that opprtunity
or i wish i would have that opportunity ?

Hello Dean,

The second sentence is not correct. This is because we don't generally use 'would' with the subject 'I' after 'wish', since in a sentence like this, 'would' expresses the idea of annoyance or unwillingness. In this sentence, the opportunity is not something that your willingness directly affects.

In other words, you can say something like 'I wish he would visit me' (the subject of the verb 'would visit' is 'he', not 'I' -- the idea is that you wish he was willing (wanted) to visit you) but not 'I wish I would have that opportunity'. Instead, we say 'I wish I could have' or 'I wish I had'.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

This is because 'would'

Dear LearnEnglish Team,

Regarding "After I/he/she/it, we can use were instead of was," could someone explain the rationale behind this linguistic phenomenon? It seems that this doesn't comply with the principle of subject-predicate consistency, although it's widely accepted.
Further more, which of 'was' and 'were' a native speaker would prefer to use regardless the using environment (spoken and written)?
Thank you.

Hello Harry de ZHANG,

I'm not sure there is a rationale for such aspects of the language. Languages are organic and develop through use and need without an imposed plan from above.

This use of were is actually an archaic form. The subjunctive used to be the norm in if-clauses but now is used only with the verb be (present subjunctive- be, past subjunctive - were)

You can read more about the subjunctive in English here:


The use of were in if-clauses is still very common, particularly with the first-person (If I were...). The use of was is frowned upon by some people, who see it as incorrect or at best poor style. This is not a view shared by the majority of modern grammarians, however.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter,

Thank you so much for the reply! You are a big help!


My query is on the subject of grammatical moods. When talking about wishes and hypotheses, are we using the subjunctive mood?

I've read elsewhere that most grammarians consider English as only having three major/true grammatical moods (i.e. indicative, subjunctive and imperative). My larger question is this, whenever we compose any clause/sentence (to express a complete grammatical thought) in English, without even being conscious of it, are we already employing a particular grammatical mood (i.e. that our sentence, by definition, can automatically be classified as being either in indicative, subjunctive or imperative mood)?



Hi Tim,

You're correct that there are three moods in English (indicative, subjunctive and imperative) and that every verb has one of these three moods. Note that it is not the sentence which has a mood, however, but the verb; mood is a characteristic of verbs.


The subjunctive can be used in some hypothetical forms but it's actually hard to tell in many cases as the past subjunctive and the past indicative forms of the verb are identical in all but the third person in English. It's easier with present forms, and with these we can see that the present subjunctive is already archaic and is in the process of disappearing. Both of these sentences are grammatically correct, but the first sounds very old-fashioned and stilted:

If they be found, bring them to me. [be = present subjunctive]

If they are found, bring them to me. [are = present indicative]


We have similar choices with hypothetical past forms:

I wish he were here. [were = past subjunctive]

I wish he was here. [was = past indicative]



The LearnEnglish Team