'wish' and 'if only'

Do you know how to use wish and if only to talk about things you would like to change?

Look at these examples to see how wish and if only are used.

That guy is so annoying! I wish he'd stop talking.
I wish I lived closer to my family.
If only I hadn't lost her phone number. She must think I'm so rude for not calling her.
I wish they wouldn't park their car in front of my house.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

'wish' and 'if only': Grammar test 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

We use wish and if only to talk about things that we would like to be different in either the present or the past. If only is usually a bit stronger than wish

In the present

We can use wish/if only + a past form to talk about a present situation we would like to be different. 

I wish you didn't live so far away.
If only we knew what to do.
He wishes he could afford a holiday.

In the past

We can use wish/if only + a past perfect form to talk about something we would like to change about the past. 

They wish they hadn't eaten so much chocolate. They're feeling very sick now.
If only I'd studied harder when I was at school. 

Expressing annoyance

We can use wish + would(n't) to show that we are annoyed with what someone or something does or doesn't do. We often feel that they are unlikely or unwilling to change.

I wish you wouldn't borrow my clothes without asking.
I wish it would rain. The garden really needs some water.
She wishes he'd work less. They never spend any time together.

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

'wish' and 'if only': Grammar test 2

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Language level

B2 English level (upper intermediate)

Submitted by EuK on Sat, 01/10/2022 - 16:15

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Hi! It's pretty clear how to use this structure to talk about situations in the present and the past, thanks for the article! My question how do we express the same idea about the future? I'm a bit confused here. There are some elements of potential future situations when we use 'I wish/If only + would' but these are special situations, that we don't really think will happen. Got this from the replies to the comments - tell me if I'm wrong. But what about general situations in the future? For example there is a sentence in my students book: 'If only the weather were nice on Sunday!'. Is it correct? Why can't we say then: 'If only she came tomorrow!'? Could you clarify how we speak about situations in the future.

Hi EuK,

I think you can probably find examples of if only with a specific future reference but I would hesitate to say they are standard use. I can't think of any examples which sound natural to my ear. We can use if only + will with future meaning, however. It's a way of anthropomorphising inanimate objects - giving them will even when they don't have it. The weather is a good example:

If only the rain will hold off on Sunday, we'll be able to have the party outside.

When the speaker sees the situation as unlikely then the past form can be used:

If only the rain would hold off on Sunday, we'd be able to have the party outside.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Zynah1 on Sun, 18/09/2022 - 10:05

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Hi
What is the difference between these two sentences?

"I wish we could have made some nice poses for the photographs.'
"I wish we had made some nice poses for the photographs."

Hello Zynah1,

The first sentence suggests that something made it impossible for us to make some nice poses. The second one merely laments that we didn't make some nice poses; it doesn't indicate whether we chose not to or whether something stopped us from doing it.

So the first sentence is more specific.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by AndreaBuzz on Sat, 10/09/2022 - 06:39

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Hi,
in the grammar test 1-3: "He wishes _____ the kitchen in such a mess. He always has to clean before he cooks", the correct answer is "they wouldn't leave". If I understand, it uses "would" as "would" can also be considered the past form of "will", is it correct?
My question is, why can't I use directlly the past form of leave?
In this way: "He wishes didn't leave the kitchen in such a mess. He always has to clean before he cooks".
Which is the difference?
The same happen in test 1-6:"I wish people wouldn't play loud music on the train. What's wrong with using headphones?!"
Thanks a lot for your answer.

Hello AndreaBuzz,

You can use the past form in both question 3 and question 8 (Grammar test 1). In other words, both 'He wishes they didn't leave the kitchen ...' and 'I wish people didn't play loud music ...' are grammatically correct. In the context of Grammar test 1, which is a multiple choice exercise, they aren't options of course, but they are grammatically correct.

The difference between the versions with 'would' ('He wishes they wouldn't leave the kitchen ...') and the versions with a past form ('He wishes they didn't leave the kitchen') is a subtle one. The past forms simply show that we wish the situation were different; the forms with 'would' show that we wish the situation were different and show that we are annoyed with people's lack of consideration or unwillingness to change.

So the forms with 'would' have one more layer of meaning to them than the past simple ones do, but this doesn't mean the past simple ones are incorrect.

Hope that clears it up for you.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ryanzol on Wed, 07/09/2022 - 05:13

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Hi
There is a question:
1. He wishes he ____ back in time and visit Ancient Rome.
(the correct answer is 'could travel')
2. If only I _____ the time off work, I'd come and visit you.
(the correct answer is 'could take')

Above questions are talking about 'someone would like to change the present situation. According to the explanation, the answer should be 'simple past tense', but the correct answer is 'could + present tense'

I wonder if 'could + present tense' is equal to 'simple past tense'?

Thanks for answering

Have a good day.

Hello again ryanzol,

Yes, 'could' is effectively the past form of 'can'. It is also a modal verb, and modal verbs are typically followed by a verb in the base form (also called a 'bare infinitive' or 'infinitive without 'to'' -- it's the form you look up in the dictionary).

It's true that the base form is also used in some present simple forms, but please note that it's important to learn that 'could' is followed by a base form (not by the present simple).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by AndreaBuzz on Tue, 30/08/2022 - 09:59

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Hi,
in the grammar test 2-6:
"If only I _____ the time off work, I'd come and visit you.
could take
would take
took",
I answered erroneously with the last option, that is TOOK. I also read the Kirk's answer to Maryam and it is clear to me. But I still have a doubt.
In the grammar, two cases are only discussed: the past form and the past perfect form. It is not completely true if I can also use the form "subject + could + infinitive ...". Please, You can clarify me this.
Thanks a lot.

Hi AndreaBuzz,

Good question! Actually, "could" is the past form of "can", so it's included in the first case: In the present (expressed by wish/if only + a past form). Phrases starting "If only I could ... (+ verb)" are fairly common to express wishes and regrets.

Another example is given above: He wishes he could afford a holiday.

I hope that helps to make sense of it.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Essam Wahba on Sun, 31/07/2022 - 19:31

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This is a really helpful site.

Submitted by TechnoBlade_Ne… on Mon, 18/07/2022 - 13:51

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Hi, May I ask a question?
In Grammar test 1, We've the the correct answer of number 3 is ''would ...'', but number 4 is "had met'' and those two are in the same structure S+wishes... . Can you please explain why?

Hi TechnoBlade_Never_Die,

It's because the timeframe is different. Question 3 is about the present, i.e. it's something that happens generally and regularly. It also expresses annoyance, which is typical of the phrase I wish you/he/she would(n't). On the other hand, question 4 is about a single event in the past, and there's no indication that this is something the speaker considers annoying.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Maryam Guliyeva on Wed, 06/07/2022 - 15:04

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Hello everyone! I'm confused in Grammar Test 2 ex 6.
If only I _____ the time off work, I'd come and visit you.
-could take
-would take
-took
My answer was "took", but the right one is "could take". Could anyone explain to me the reason of this choice please.
Thank you, Maryam.

Hello Maryam,

When someone says 'If only I could take time off work, I'd come and visit you', they are talking about the present and saying that they want to take time off work to visit you, but that they are not able to take time off right now. The verb 'could' is important in the gap because it expresses this idea of not being able. The important point is that you aren't able to take time off, not that you haven't taken time off.

Another possible sentence is 'If only I had taken time off work, I'd come and visit you'. This is not an option in the exercise, but it expresses the idea that if the speaker had planned their leave better in the past, they would not have to work right now in the present and so could go and visit you.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by bridge23d on Tue, 07/06/2022 - 10:45

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If only I hadn't lost her phone number. She must think I'm so rude for not calling her.
Please let me know whether following sentences can be also used replacing above one or there is any difference?
1. If only I hadn't lost her phone number. She must have been thinking I'm so rude for not calling her.
2. If only I hadn't lost her phone number. She must be thinking I'm so rude for not calling her.

Hi bridge23d,

Their meanings are slightly different. In sentence 1, "must have been thinking" (present perfect continuous) refers to some time before the present moment, and the continuous aspect emphasises the duration of the activity (thinking). So, it might be used in a context like this: "If only I hadn't lost her phone number. I promised her that I'd call her sometime yesterday. She must have been thinking I'm so rude for not calling her." (Here, "must have been thinking" refers to "yesterday", and we understand that her "thinking" went on for some time yesterday.)

In sentence 2, "must be thinking" is in the present continuous, indicating that the action is ongoing at the present moment (i.e., the moment of speaking). Perhaps she is expecting the phone call right now, for example.

In the original sentence, "think" in the present simple shows a general attitude, not necessarily what she is thinking at the present moment.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ulk on Mon, 30/05/2022 - 22:32

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Hello. My question concerns Wish + Would speaking about other person's actions. I s it always only about annoyance? Can i say' I wish she would come' expressing just my desire to see her + ( = I want her to come) Or in the latter case I should only say ' I wish she came or I wish she were there ' Thank you

Hello Ulk,

Wish + would is often used to express disapproval but it can be used in other ways, as you say. Note, however, that it expresses regret of some kind rather than hope or expectation. Thus, if you say 'I wish she would come' you do not believe that she will, whereas if you say 'I hope she comes' you still have some hope.

'I wish she were there' has a different meaning. It describes a present situation which is not true, as in 'I wish I were a millionaire'.

'I wish she came' is not correct as it refers to a past event (she didn't come). You would need to use the past perfect in this case: 'I wish she had come'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Peter
But I’m a little bit confused now )
Am I right in thinking that I can use Would in 2 cases : when I’m annoyed with her – I wish she would come and also when I regret about the situation ( for ex. I know that it’s unlikely that she’ll come ) – I wish she would come - and since the grammar is the same it’s only me who knows what meaning is implied?
Secondly, my phrase ‘ I wish she came’ was meant for the present , the same as in the explanation on this page above: We can use wish/if only + a past form to talk about a present situation we would like to be different. ( ex. I wish I lived closer to my family ). In my understanding it also has a similar meaning with your example about a millionaire :
I wish I were a millionaire ( past simple) = I’m not a millionaire, I regret it and I want a change
I wish she came ( past simple ) = She is not going to come , I regret that she isn’t here now and I want a change . To me it’s the same as 'I wish she were here' but with a different verb .
Where am I wrong?

Hello again Ulk,

Your summary is correct. A sentence like 'I wish she would come' can have more than one meaning depending on the context. However, the choice of a positive or negative verb gives a clue.

We generally use a negative form to express annoyance at typical behaviour:

I wish you wouldn't smoke in the car. It's horrible!

A positive verb is more common when talking about a single choice which we think is still possible, though unlikely, rather than typical behaviour:

I wish he'd come to the party.

I wish they'd sign the contract.

 

To your second point, the problem here is the context. The speaker is at the party so 'come' describes an action in the past which we only know is true when the other person arrives. Thus the options are as follows:

I wish she were here. [the present I would like]

I wish she had come. [the past I would like so that the present I would like is true]

I wish she would come. [a hypothetical future - the decision is not yet taken]

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again Peter,
Considering your answer, am I right this time?

- She doesn’t understand the wish structure - I wish she understood the wish structure ( now ) – Past simple tense , my regret about the present, the same as in ‘ I wish I lived closer to my family’

- She doesn’t understand the wish structure.- I wish she would understand ( one day ) the wish structure . - Would, a hypothetical future, I don’t consider the present situation, I only think about the future which is rather unlikely

- I hope she understands the wish structure ( one day) - I’m sure she’s not that bad, she can do it ;)

- In case of the incorrect ‘I wish she came’ , speaking about now, the choice of the verb is wrong , because come refers only to the future, it’s not about the present, she’s not here now. In this case we should pick the verb BE to be correct- I wish she were here – I regret that she’s not here now

Hello again,

Those are almost all correct - well done. The only one that doesn't really work is the second one [I wish she would understand (one day) the wish structure]. The problem is that this use of 'would' implies a choice, and 'understand' is not something we make a choice about but rather something that we try to achieve and either do or do not. If the context included a choice then you could use 'would' like this:

I wish she would accept the job, but I don't think she will.

When you think about it, these sentences are as much if not more about the present than the future, as they really describe how we see the current situation (right now it's unlikely) rather than purely the future.

Where no choice is present I think 'hope' is the best choice used with a rider to show our doubts:

I hope she understands the wish structure one day, but I don't think it's very likely.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by abhay on Sun, 01/05/2022 - 16:27

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Hello sir,
I was reading the novel "THE JUNGLE BOOK"
and following are a few lines of it.

MY DOUBT: My question is about the usage of 'ONLY' in following passage.
Sir , is it possible that after the word 'only' the word 'NO'(as a determiner) can be used?
In following passage 'NO' is used in this manner. Please clarify.

Thanking you.

PASSAGE: “By Red Flower Bagheera meant fire, ONLY no creature in the jungle will call fire by its proper name.

Every beast lives in deadly fear of it, and invents a hundred ways of describing it. "The Red Flower?" said Mowgli. "That grows outside their huts in the twilight.”

Submitted by ninaals on Tue, 22/02/2022 - 17:36

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Lucky me, since i'm always regretting things about the past in my head, I almost know how to use I wish and if only by heart.

Submitted by GiulianaAndy on Tue, 29/06/2021 - 02:25

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Hello, great lesson. However, I have a question: Imagine this situation: "I have got a splitting headache" and one of the hypothetical forms that I could say is: "I wish I didn't have a splitting headache", but could I say: "I wish I wouldn't have a splitting headache" or "If only I wouldn't have a splitting headache" instead of the first option?

Hello GiulianaAndy,

No, I'm afraid it wouldn't be correct to say 'I wish I wouldn't have a headache' or 'If only I wouldn't have a headache' in this case.

The subject of the verb 'have' in the sentence is 'I', not the headache, and it doesn't really express the idea of willingness or unwillingness. 

It's unusual (though not impossible) to say 'I wish I would' because we don't usually express wishes about our own behavior -- this is because, in theory at least, we are in control of our behavior and therefore don't have to make wishes about it. We wish for things that we're not completely in control of.

It's when we feel we aren't in complete control that we could use this 'I wish I would' structure. For example, if I say 'I wish I would stop smoking', it suggests that I don't think I am in complete control, perhaps because I'm addicted to nicotine.

It's possible to say 'I wish I stopped smoking', but that is odd because by doing that I'm talking about myself as an object. People don't normally use this grammar to speak about themselves in this way.

I hope this helps you make sense of the grammar.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user aymanme2

Submitted by aymanme2 on Fri, 04/06/2021 - 15:59

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Hello, sirs, I read in so many sources that it is incorrect to use 'wish + subject + would' when the subject of the two verbs is the same as in 'I wish I would (do)'. However, I sometimes find it difficult to avoid using this pattern as in the following examples: 1) I wish I wouldn't have to work tomorrow. (Or should it be 'I wish I didn't have to work tomorrow.'? 2) My brother wishes he would get his driving licence next Monday. (Or should it be 'My brother wishes he could get his driving licence next Monday.'? 3) I wish my son [would / could] join the faculty of medicine. Is there anyway that these examples could work? Please, provide me with detailed explanation concerning when and when not to use 'Subject a + wishes + subject a + would do...

Hello aymanme2,

Most of the time, we don't use 'would' in the clause after 'wish' when the subject of both clauses is the same. In the first situation you describe, instead you should say 'didn't have to work' (just as you suggest).

In the second situation, you could say 'could', but, unless I've misunderstood, it sounds to me as if a sentence with 'hope' might be more appropriate. We use 'wish' when we regard the outcome as impossible or very unlikely and 'hope' when we see it as possible. So, for example, if your brother is taking the driving licence exam on Monday, it would probably be more appropriate to say 'My brother hopes to get his licence on Monday' or 'I hope my brother gets his licence on Monday'.

In the third situation, both 'could' and 'would' are possible and the meanings are slightly different. 'I wish my son could join' means it's not possible for him to join, but that you wish it weren't impossible. 'I wish my son would join' means it's possible for him to join but that he doesn't want to and refuses to do it.

It is possible to use 'would' in a sentence with 'wish' where both clauses have the same subject, but it has a very specific meaning. For example, if I say 'I wish I would exercise every day', this means that I wish I had the desire or discipline to exercise every day but know that I don't. Like the third situation above, 'would' expresses the idea of desire or willingness. This is a pretty unusual situation and often we'd just say 'I wish I exercised every day', which is probably why grammar books don't mention it.

If you want to read a bit more about this, I'd suggest this page on 'wish' and this page on 'hope' on the Cambridge Dictionary website.

Hope this helps!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by dewwoof on Wed, 31/03/2021 - 04:21

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Ouuu I got all correct. It was fun learning this. Thank you! :DD

Submitted by Rania Hapsari … on Wed, 31/03/2021 - 03:50

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Hi, i got 7/8 but i think it's ok and i should more improve again and more understanding the material, but the explaination is so clear and easy to understand.
Profile picture for user Rafaela1

Submitted by Rafaela1 on Sun, 21/03/2021 - 12:19

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I wish it would rain. The garden really needs some water. I wish I would eat less. I never wear a tight skirt any longer. ;)

Submitted by Dante2021 on Sat, 20/03/2021 - 00:47

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Hi! Here is my conclusion : 1/ we use "wish" or "if only" with past perfect form (Had+P.P) when we go further back in time when we are already talking about the past. It can make it clear that something had already happened at the time we are talking about. example : I wish I wasn't late (for work), by the time I arrived the client had already left.(correct me if I'm wrong) Peace.
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 21/03/2021 - 07:02

In reply to by Dante2021

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Hi Dante2021,

We can use wish to talk about present or past regrets:

I wish I wasn't late. [a regret about the present: I am late now]

I wish I hadn't left my house late this morning. [a regret about the past: this morning]

I wish I hadn't been late yesterday. [a regret about the past: yesterday]

Regrets about the present are expressed with {wish + past simple]; regrets about the past are expressed with [wish + past perfect].

 

In your example the past perfect (had already left) is not part of a grammatical construction with wish; it is part of a different clause which provides context and explanation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Maahir on Tue, 16/03/2021 - 08:48

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Hello, In test,1 there is a questions saying-- If only he _____ here now. He'd know what to do. with three options ( Would be, wasn't and were) to answer this, I have chosen would be, and it says that (were is the correct answer) so I was wondering if we can use (were) with(he, she or it). I hope you understood my question. Thanks.
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Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 16/03/2021 - 15:21

In reply to by Maahir

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Hello Maahir,

'would be' is not correct here. The only possible answers for this are 'was' and 'were', and since 'were' is your only option, it is the correct answer in this exercise.

When speaking about a hypothetical or unreal situation -- which is the case in this sentence, since it means that he is not here right now -- it's possible to say 'were' or 'was' for any person. In other words, it's correct to say 'I were' and 'he/she/it were', and it's also correct to say 'I was' and 'he/she/it was'.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MohammedAhmed on Tue, 02/03/2021 - 13:55

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Hallo Can I say " I wish you come with us today " it is about a present situation with present tense
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Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 03/03/2021 - 08:36

In reply to by MohammedAhmed

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Hello MohammedAhmed,

I'm afraid that's not grammatically correct. If I correctly understand what you want to communicate, I'd recommend 'I hope you come with us today'.

We use 'wish' and 'if only' to speak about things we would like to be different, but usually which can't be different, at least for the moment. When we want to speak about something more possible, we use 'hope'.

You might find this more detailed explanation useful.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ayn on Tue, 02/03/2021 - 12:56

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It looks like rain. I wish I ____ my umbrella. There is looks, which shows that there is a present meaning. So, shouldn't we fill in the blank as "brought"?

Hello Ayn,

We use 'wish' and 'if only' to speak about things we would like to be different, but which can't be different right now. In this situation, for example, the idea is that we did not bring our umbrella. This is why 'had brought' is the correct answer here.

Does that make sense?

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Yes, it does, thanks. I have one more question. I wish she were my wife. I wish she was my wife. Which one is correct and can you give reasons?

Hello Ayn,

Great! 'was' and 'were' both mean exactly the same thing here. Many years ago, only 'were' was correct here because it is the subjunctive form. But over the years, 'was' has come to be accepted as an alternative. There are still some people who have a more traditional view that might say that 'were' is really the only correct form, but if you look at how people speak and write, you'll find both forms in common use.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by aymanme2 on Thu, 18/02/2021 - 16:53

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Thanks a lot, sir. I have another question. Which is the right option? I wish mom __(didn't whistle _ hadn't whistled) while she was doing the washing up. I think it is 'hadn't whistled' to express a wish of a past action; While she WAS DOING ....... I think 'didn't whistle / wouldn't whistle' can work if we say: I which mom didn't whistle / wouldn't whistle while SHE IS doing the washing up. = to express a present wish.

Hello aymanme2,

Yes, that's correct. Well done! It looks as if you understand this very well.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team