Unreal Past


Wish + (that) + past simple

We often use past tense to refer to an unreal situation. Though the tense is in the past, we, in fact, talk about some hypothetical situation – something that didn’t happen: a state or situation in the present that we regret but do not have any control:

I wish I brought the kids to the party.

He wishes he was muscular.

She wishes she was driving home with Jack.

I wish I was/ were

Past subjunctive = Used in the same form as the past simple tense; denotes present or future time:

I wish (that) she was/were a bit slimmer. (she is fat)

I wish you were not getting a cold. You’re all wet.

Past perfect subjunctive = Used in the same form as the past perfect tense; denotes past time:

If you had got up a bit earlier, you wouldn’t have missed the train. (you didn’t get up earlier)

We use the unreal tenses in second and third conditionals to express unreal or hypothetical situations and they are usually followed by wish, as if, as though, if only, it’s (high) time, would rather and would sooner, etc. to suggest that the condition they introduce is imaginary:

Supposing that you became the Prime Minister, Mr. Magento, what would you say?

If you got caught in the rain, I would feed the dog.

What if this opportunity didn’t turn up at just the right time for you?

If only I had my own car, I could drop the children off at the school.

What would you do if you inherited a fortune from your grandfather? (you probably won’t inherit a fortune)

When these expressions introduce hypothetical situations – something that didn’t happen – in the past, they are followed by the past perfect:

If only he’d listen to what she’s saying.

What if the child had touched that live electric wire?             (the child didn’t touch)

Supposing I had borrowed $20 from you. Would you have given it to me? (I didn’t borrow)

Wish + (that) + past perfect

When we talk about situations in the past that we feel sorry for or actions that we regret, we use the verb to wish followed by the past perfect:

I wish (that) the noise of the traffic hadn’t woken me (up) so early.

He wishes (that) he’d never got involved in the drug scene.

I wish I hadn’t answered back in the class.

He wishes he hadn’t taken a shortcut to town.

I wish I had spoken to Sarah before Freddie proposed to her.

Wish + (that) + would

When we talk about something we are not happy about and we are annoyed about something that is or is not happening, or we complain about something, we use to wish followed by would + infinitive:

I wish that elderly gentleman would stop coughing all the way through the concert! (He is coughing; it would be better if he didn’t.)

I wish they wouldn’t make a mess of their marriage. (they make a mess of their marriage; it would be better if they didn’t)

I wish he would stop grumbling about poor wages and long hours.

Wishing + (that) + would

We also use wish in the continuous form in informal situations:
He let his parents down by stealing. I’m just wishing he would go away!

Be careful:

We do not use wish instead of hope, when we want something to happen in the future or when we want something to have happened in the past:

I hope the blizzard doesn’t just affect the Midlands tomorrow. (Not I wish the blizzard……..)

I hope she didn’t miss a single episode of her favourite soap opera. (Not I wish she didn’t miss….)

I’d rather

We also use ‘I’d rather + past tense’, when we want a course of action to be done by someone else or prefer someone else to do that:

I’d rather you stayed a bit longer.

He’d rather you helped him clean out the stables.

I’d rather you didn’t tease him about his weight.

In the following sentences, we are putting emphasis to show our desire:

I’d rather you patched things up with her after your row. (instead of making war)

He’d rather you talked about your exams. (instead of going out)

He’d rather you helped him finish the household chores. (instead of whiling away)


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