Unreal time

Unreal time

Do you know how to talk about unreal situations by shifting the verb form backwards? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

Look at these examples to see how we use different tenses to talk about unreal time.

If only there was something I could do to help.
It's high time we stopped using plastic bags.
I'd rather you didn't mention this to Sam for now.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Grammar test 1: Grammar C1: Unreal time: 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

Imagined, wished for or unlikely situations are considered 'unreal' time. When we are talking about these situations, we often shift the verb form backwards. For example, the present changes to the past, and the past changes to the past perfect. The tense change suggests a distance from reality.

Wish and if only

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

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 I knew more people my own age.
If only drivers paid more attention to cyclists.

Would is used when the speaker wants someone or something else to change. It often expresses annoyance.

I wish people wouldn't eat noisily at the cinema.

The past

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

I wish I hadn't stayed out so late last night. I'm really tired today.
If only we'd known this company was going to close, we wouldn't have recommended them. 

The future

Note that we don't use wish to talk about our wishes for a future event.

I wish you pass the exam.

This is not talking about an unreal time; it's a wish for the future. We usually use I hope to express wishes for the future.

I hope you pass the exam.

It's (high) time

We can use the expression it's (high) time + subject + past verb form to say it is time to do something now that should have been done a long time ago.

It's high time we went to bed.
It's time we took responsibility for our planet. 

As if/as though

We can use as if and as though to talk about how a situation appears or seems. As if is more common than as though.

Some people behave as if their actions had no consequences.
It was as though she hadn't heard me.

When we follow as if/as though with an unreal tense, we are saying we don't think the statement is really true. 

Would rather

Would rather is used to express preference about actions.

I'd rather buy less, but better quality.

When the subjects of the two clauses are different, we often use unreal tenses.

They would rather we didn't wait too long before letting them know our decision.
I'd rather you didn't eat dinner on the new sofa.

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Grammar test 2: Grammar C1: Unreal time: 2

Language level

Average: 4.3 (30 votes)
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Submitted by NTS on Wed, 21/02/2024 - 09:08


Hello dear instructors,
I've got a question from Grammar test 2:
"He'd rather we didn't start work on this until the order is confirmed."

As far as I know, we use either 'to' or '-ing' form after 'start'. Could you please explain me more on how we use the sentence stucture in the test ("start work on this")?

Hello NTS,

In this case, 'work' is a noun rather than a verb. This is often used to speak about the start of a project or assignment of some sort ('Tomorrow we start work on the new project'), or one's job ('I start work at 7am').

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team


I think that in this case "work" is not a verb or a gerund it is a noun (work = task). I guess it's confusing because work can be both a verb and a noun.

Submitted by Sep80 on Mon, 15/01/2024 - 20:16


Hello The LearnEnglish Team,
Is the sentence incorrect either grammatically or semantically because I used "now"?
"Now it's time you wrote a short composition."

Hello Sep80,

That looks fine to me, though I'd probably say 'It's time to write a composition now'.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by hamadbaghdadi on Wed, 15/11/2023 - 07:30


first , I would like to thank you all for all the efforts you have made to support and define these fruitful website.
I have one question regarding unreal tense and when we can use it especially after as if. could you please explain to me why we did not use unreal tense with the below sentences extracted from previous page although the statement is not really true.

You look as if you've seen a ghost.
I felt as if I was floating above the ground.
You talk as though we're never going to see each other again.

Hello hamadbaghdadi,

I'm not sure what you mean by 'unreal tense'. English uses a range of devices for hypothetical situations, including past forms, subjunctive forms and various modal verbs.

In your examples 'as if' ('though') tells us that the two situations are similar to each other. It is not describing a hypothetical situation but rather making a comparison. You could replace it with 'like' in each sentence.



The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user oyo

Submitted by oyo on Tue, 26/09/2023 - 14:44


what is the diffrence between if only we knew it was your birthday yesterday and if only we had known it was your birthday

Hello oyo,

The second sentence is about the past: we didn't know it was your birthday and we regret it.

The first sentence would be about the present. It would describe a present state of knowledge (we don't know it was your birthday yesterday). However, this makes no sense as we cannot express regret about not knowing something without already knowing it - we have to know it was your birthday in order to feel regret at forgetting it earlier. Therefore the first sentence makes no logical sense even if grammatically it is possible.



The LearnEnglish Team