Wish Sentences in English

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Dreaming and wishing are normal parts of our lives, so it’s important to be able to communicate them clearly. In English, wish sentences have many nuanced rules, often confusing language learners. In this article, you will learn how to write and speak such messages correctly.

Basics of Wish Sentences 

Communicating about your desires and dreams in English, you will use the phrases “I wish” or “if only.” Many speakers use them interchangeably, but some differences might help to provide the correct context to your messages:

  • I wish. This expression can be used more widely, especially to talk about future desires and present and past regrets. When speaking about the future, “I wish” often conveys a desire for something that seems unlikely or impossible.
  • If only. Less versatile, this expression carries a stronger emotional weight, emphasizing a deeper longing or regret. It’s also very helpful when speaking about yearning for an alternative scenario.

Depending on the past, future, and present desires there might be different rules for using these two expressions.

If only/I wish grammar for future aspirations

In terms of future wishes, grammar rules are the following:

  1. Structure. Always stick to the structure “noun/pronoun+wish/if only+noun/pronoun+could/would+the rest of the sentence.” For example:
    1. If only I could skip exams this summer.
    2. Jake wishes we would exceed the plan for this year.
  2. Infinitive. Always use the infinitive form of the verb after would/could.
    1. Correct. We wish we could get tickets for the future festival.
    2. Incorrect. We wish we could to get tickets for the future festival.
    3. Incorrect. We wish we could gotten tickets for the future festival.

One of the most common mistakes, when speaking about future aspirations, is adding “will” like in this sentence: “I wish I will have more money.” This construction is incorrect because "I wish" and "if only" imply a desire for something that the speaker believes is unlikely or impossible

Another common mistake is confusing “i wish/if only” with conditionals sentence. Keep in mind that these expressions serve a different purpose, which is to express a desire for the future. Conditional sentences, on the contrary, are used to hypothesize about the future.

If only/I wish grammar for present

In English you can use if only/i wish sentences to reflect on the present and convey a desire for things to be different. In this case “if only” is more common since it reveals a stronger emotional impact. However, it’s also correct to use “i wish.” Here are the rules to use these expressions for the presents:

  1. Structure. I wish/if only+noun/pronoun+verb+the rest of the sentence. For example:
    1. I wish I lived in Hamburg.
    2. We wish we were speaking about historical events on this lecture.
  2. Tense. Use only past simple or past continuous to speak about present regrets.
    1. Correct. I wish I had better computer.
    2. Incorrect. I wish I have better computer. 
    3. Correct. Bob wishes he was playing as a midfielder during this game. 
    4. Incorrect. Bob wishes he would play as a midfielder during this game. 

The most common mistake in case of present regrets is using could/would in the sentence. Remember that could/would should be added to speak about future desires, while for present you have to use past simple/continuous forms.


Past Wishes Grammar

Except for future desires and present regrets, you can use “i wish/if only” to express a feeling of nostalgia and regrets about past actions. These expressions share a similar purpose but can vary in the intensity of the emotion they convey, with "if only" often implying a deeper sense of regret or longing. The rules are as follows:

  1. Structure. I wish/if only+noun/pronoun+verb+the rest of the sentence.
  2. Tense. In such sentences you should use past perfect after “I wish.”
    1. I wish had learned harder when I was at the university.
    2. We wish Danny had worked longer with us.

The misuse of tenses is the most correct mistake when speaking about past regret. Remember that such sentences require a past perfect (had+past participle) to correctly convey the sense of past actions.

Speaking about hypothetical situations

When “i wish/if only” is used mostly for regrets or desires, there are some structures to speak directly about hypothetical situations. They have different rules and allow more nuanced exploration of possibilities. Here are the most common phrases used for this purpose along with the rules.

  1. What if…? Typically used to speculate about future events or to ponder alternatives to past and present situations. This expression should be followed by a present or past tense verb, depending on whether you're speculating about the future or reimagining the past.
    1. Incorrect: "What if it will rain?"
    2. Correct: "What if it rains?" or "What if it were to rain?"
  2. In case… Prepares for a potential situation, indicating an action taken to address a possible future scenario. It is typically followed by a present tense verb. Learners often confuse "in case" with "if." Remember that "in case" is used for precautions, not conditions.
    1. Incorrect: "Take an umbrella if it rains." (This suggests uncertainty about rain.)
    2. Correct: "Take an umbrella in case it rains." (This is a precautionary action.)
  3. Suppose (that)... Invites to consider a hypothetical situation, often used in speculative reasoning or planning. Can be followed by a present, past, or past perfect verb, depending on the context of the hypothesis.
    1. Suppose you found a treasure. What would you do?
    2. Suppose you hadn’t received a certificate. What would you have done?
  4. Imagine (if/that)... Used to picture an unreal situation, often followed by a condition or outcome that is imaginary.
    1. Imagine if we could travel through time.

To correctly use these expressions, always focus on the context of the hypothetical situation. Is it a future possibility, present alternative, or reflection on the past? Answering the question, you will choose the most appropriate word for communicating.

Understanding the Usage of Wish Sentences


Try out different structures in your daily conversations and writing. Expose yourself to how “i wish/if only” and phrases for hypothetical scenarios are used in books, articles, and even song lyrics. And always ask your teacher, tutor, or a proficient speaker to provide feedback on your communication skills, when you speak about aspirations or reflect the past.

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