Subjunctive Mood - Expressing Wishes  

Definition

One of the most straightforward ways of using the subjunctive mood is when we want to describe a wish for something to be different than it is or was. We generally construct these sentences using the word wish, followed by the verb of the desired action.

Creating the subjunctive mood

When we express wishes, we create the subjunctive mood by moving the main verb of the sentence one tense back in the past. We’ll look at some examples of these tense shifts below, but here is a quick reference to remember how each tense moves back in the past:
  • present simple tense → past simple tense
  • present continuous tense → past continuous tense
  • present perfect tense → past perfect tense
  • present perfect continuous tense → past perfect continuous tense
  • past simple tense → past perfect tense
  • past continuous tense → past perfect continuous tense
  • past perfect tense → past perfect tense (no further shift possible)
  • past perfect continuous tense → past perfect continuous tense (no further shift possible)

Present tense wishes

As we can see above, for a wish about a situation in the present, we use the past tense equivalent of the verb:
  • Situation: “It’s Monday. I have to go to work.” (present simple tense)
  • Desire: “I wish it weren’t Monday. I wish I didn’t have to go to work.” (past simple tense)

Conjugating be in the subjunctive mood

You might be more inclined to say “I wish it wasn’t Monday,” because this sounds like the natural subject-verb agreement resulting from “It is Monday.” However, the verb be always conjugates to were in the subjunctive mood, regardless of whether it refers to a singular or plural noun.
Although it is becoming increasingly common to use was in everyday writing and speech, you should always use were when talking about wishes or desires, especially in formal, professional, or academic contexts.
Be is the only verb that conjugates irregularly to reflect the subjunctive mood for wishes and desires. For all other verbs, we simply move them back one tense in the past as normal.
For example:
  • Situation: “I can’t speak French, but would like to.”
  • Desire: “I wish I spoke French.”
When we use auxiliary verbs, we move these back a tense instead of the main verbs:
  • “I wish I could speak French.”
We can also use the subjunctive mood within the same sentence as verbs in the indicative mood:
  • “I can’t speak French, but I wish I could.”

Examples of other present tense wishes

  • Situation: “It is raining outside.” (present continuous tense)
  • Desire: “I wish it weren’t raining.” (past continuous tense)
  • Situation: “He has lived in New York City his whole life.” (present perfect tense)
  • Desire: “He wishes he had lived somewhere else at some point.” (past perfect tense)
  • Situation: “My assistant has been organizing the filing cabinet.” (present perfect continuous tense)
  • Desire: “I wish he had been working on something more important.” (past perfect continuous tense)

Past tense wishes

For past wishes, we go back in the past one tense further. For instance:
  • Situation: “I’ll miss my appointment because I left the house late.” (past simple tense)
  • Desire: “I wish I had left the house earlier.” (past perfect tense)
As with the present tense, we can also have sentences that use both the indicative mood and the subjunctive mood. For instance:
  • “I forgot to set an alarm; I wish I hadn’t.”

Examples of other past tense wishes

  • Situation: “I was living in Canada when I met you.” (past continuous tense)
  • Desire: “I wish I had been living in America when I met you.” (past perfect continuous tense)
  • Situation: “He had started smoking again.” (past perfect tense)
  • Desire: “They all wished he hadn’t started smoking again.” (past perfect tense—no further shift possible)
  • Situation: I had been working outside when you called. (present perfect continuous tense)
  • Desire: “I wish I hadn’t been working outside when you called.” (past perfect continuous tense)

Wishes about others’ behavior

When we talk about someone’s continued behavior that we wish were different, we either use would + the desired verb, or simply the past tense of the verb.
For example:
  • Situation: Your son is always leaving his clothes lying around the bedroom floor.
  • Desire: “I wish he would pick up his clothes off the floor when I asked him to.”
or
  • Desire: “I wish he picked up his clothes off the floor when I asked him to.”
  • Situation: Your mother always whistles when she is in the house.
  • Desire: “I wish she wouldn’t whistle in the house like that.”
or
  • Desire: “I wish she didn’t whistle in the house like that.”
In the examples above, both constructions of the subjunctive are acceptable, though the would construction is more conventional. If we want to imply that we find a certain behavior annoying, we tend to use the would construction.

If only instead of wish

To express a desire that is more fanciful, unrealistic, or that we consider to be ideal, we can use if only instead of I wish to add more emphasis to the desire. (Note that the subjunctive verb still goes back one tense in the past.)
For example:
  • “I hate being cold all the time. If only I lived in a hot country.”
  • If only I were rich—I would spend my whole life traveling.”
  • “We’re spending two weeks in the French alps next month; if only I could ski!”
Quiz

1. Which verb conjugates irregularly when describing wishes in the subjunctive mood?





2. For a Situation in the present perfect tense, what verb tense would we use for a wish in the subjunctive mood?





3. Which of the following sentences is correctly conjugated for a wish in the subjunctive mood?





4. Which of the following phrases can be used instead of wish to describe an ideal or fanciful desire?





5. Which auxiliary verb can we use when we express a desire about someone else’s behavior in the subjunctive mood?





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