top of page

Tenses and structures: Wish. Or the wish list!


WISH - a word which has a multitude - oh I like that word - of uses, and is perhaps one of the more confusing verbs/nouns when it comes to its uses in grammar structures.

So I hope this is, in a way, the definitive guide to the word, in all its uses and structures, how it works and what it means. Let's begin...

As a plural noun (one wish, two wishes) and in the third person singular of the verb (he/she/it), it is wishes.

The present participle (-ing form) is wishing, and the past tense and past participle forms are the same - wished - so this makes the verb form a regular verb.

1. Now let's move on to some dictionary definitions. According to the Collins COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary (Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers), a wish is a desire or a strong feeling that you want to have something or do something. For example:

I think he was honest in his wish to talk things over. (The speaker believes the person really had a desire to discuss something important)

When it came to deciding if it was the seaside or mountains, I got my wish for the seaside. (The speaker wanted to go to the seaside, the other person wanted to go to the mountains, and after some discussion, the speaker was happy that their desire to go to the seaside won the discussion.)

These decisions were made against the wishes of the government. (The government did not have a good feeling or a desire to accept these decisions, but they either had no choice or were not informed)

I have no wish to continue the discussion. (The speaker has no desire or strong need to continue being involved in what is being talked about)

Then there is wish + for:

I had no wish for further discussion. (The speaker had no desire or strong need for the topic being talked about to continue, but this is their opinion)

Do you have a wish for more money? (Do you need or desire more money?)

2. If you wish to do something, or to have it done for you, you want to do it or have it done.

These can come in many different structures, so we'll go through each in detail.

Let's start with WISH + to + verb (the infinitive), and these forms are often used in formal conversation:

I don't wish to spend all my time discussing this subject. (The speaker doesn't want to spend what time they have available discussing something or a subject because they are either bored, don't have the time, is unable to agree, or just doesn't want to discuss it at all)

She wishes to elaborate on what has already been brought up in the meeting. (There has been a meeting, and the person would like to add to what has been said, to say more about it, or to give more details.)

Do you wish to order the Vichyssoise soup, sir? (A waiter is asking the diner if they want to have the soup brought to them as part of their menu order)

The verb only:

We can do as we wish now. (We can do whatever we want)

Will you do as she wishes? (Will you do what she wants done?)

Verb  + for:

There were those in the UK who wished for another referendum. (There were British people who wanted to have another referendum)

Do you wish for anything else? (Do you want something else?)

3. Wish is also used in polite expressions such as I don't wish to be rude or without wishing to be rude, as a way of apologizing or warning someone about what you're going to say which might make them not happy.

The structure is verb + to + infinitive:

I don't wish to sound like an idiot, but I didn't really understand what you just said. (The speaker doesn't understand what's been said, but they think that they are missing some kind of vital point, it was confusing, or that they believe they should have understood it)

Without wishing to be unkind, he's not exactly what I'd call Ed Sheeran. (The speaker believes that the person they're discussing has absolutely none of the qualities that Ed Sheeran has - that is, in their opinion, they can't sing or write songs at all, but they don't want to say that the person is rubbish at these things) 

Without wishing to be rude, this is not exactly what you're saying. (The speaker doesn't agree at all with the listener, but has chosen their words carefully so they do not give the impression of upsetting them or being offensive)

4. If you wish something were true, you would like it to be true, even though you know that it is impossible or unlikely. It is also used to express regret - in that we are sorry we did something, or that something is not as we would like it.

verb + (that):

I wish (that) I knew all the answers. (But the speaker doesn't and they would like to know all the answers)

I wish (that) it wouldn't rain all the time. (But it is raining, and the speaker doesn't like this, and gets the impression that it rains very often and it probably won't stop raining soon)

I wish I didn't have to go to work tomorrow. (But the speaker does, and it's not something that they really want to do)

I wish I was going to Australia. (But the speaker isn't, but they want to)

I wish I could stay longer but I have to go. (The speaker regrets that they cannot stay as they have something else that needs doing)

I met her before, but I wish I could remember her name. (The speaker doesn't remember her name, and they regret this)

Verb + pronoun it + to-infinitive (usually formal):

Life isn't always what we wish it to be. (We would like life to work in a way that makes us happy, but unfortunately it doesn't)

It is also used when we are sorry now about something we did in the past.

Wish + had + past participle)

I wish we'd known that he wasn't coming. We've bought the tickets and everything. (They made arrangements, paid for them, and then learned the person wasn't coming, and they regret this)

To tell him he was stupid, well, I wish I hadn't expressed myself in that way. (But the speaker had expressed themselves in a manner that was not nice, and they are sorry for this, they regret this)

To complain about a situation:

Wish + would + verb

Brian, I wish you wouldn't shout so much. (Brian shouts too much and this irritates the speaker)

I wish you would just do something and not just sit there. (The speaker is irritated with the person because they are sitting doing nothing or nothing practical)

To complain about repeated things:

I wish they wouldn't keep having parties late at night. (But they often have parties late at night and the speaker wants them to stop this, but this will probably not happen)

I wish he would stop sniffing and blow his nose. (But the person keeps sniffing and this irritates the speaker, but for the person to stop sniffing is probably not going to happen)

For actions and changes, but not situations:

Wish + noun + verb

I wish Joanna would get up. (The speaker wants Joanna to get up)

I wish someone would lend me their pen. (I need a pen - please, someone, lend me one!)

5. If you wish for something, you express the desire for that thing silently to yourself.

verb + for

What do you wish for in life? (What would you desire in life for yourself?)

Be careful what you wish for! (What you desire for yourself won't always be good)

I just wish for everything to be right. (In your mind, you simply want everything to be right - for example, right decisions are always made, no-one argues, no wars, etc)

Wish as a noun:

Throw a coin into the fountain and make a wish. (Throw a coin and think of something that you would like to come true)

You want to go to the seaside? Then I will make all your wishes come true! (The speaker will make the listener's dreams of going to the seaside happen)

6. In fairy stories, when a person wishes for something, the thing they wish for often happens by magic.

Wish as a noun:

I am the genie of the lamp and I grant you three wishes. (The genie will magically give the listener three wishes that will automatically come true)

"I wish I could go to the ball," said Cinderella sadly. "Then," said her fairy godmother, waving her wand, "your wish shall come true!" Suddenly the rags Cinderella was dressed in turned into a beautiful evening gown.

7. Wish can be used in sentences such as 'I could not wish for anything better' to show that you are very pleased with what you have and could not imagine anything better.

present perfect + for (not the continuous form)

I really couldn't have wished for a better doctor. She was kind, professional and sympathetic. (The speaker is very pleased with the treatment she had from the doctor and can't imagine anyone who could be better)

Could anyone have wished for a better chance? (Someone had a chance to do something that couldn't be better, and they have taken that opportunity)


8. If you say that you would not wish a particular thing on someone, you mean that the thing is so unpleasant that you would not want them to be forced to experience it.

Verb (not the continuous form) + on

Okay, I didn't like him, but to be in such a car accident isn't something I'd wish on anybody. (The car accident was so bad that even the speaker says that this is something they wouldn't like to happen to anybody, even with someone they didn't like)

Verb + noun + on)

I wouldn't wish this on you, but you've got to tell them the bad news. (Something's happened, perhaps to someone related to the listener, and the speaker doesn't want to force them to give them the news, but the listener has little or no choice, and the speaker knows that this will be unpleasant)

9. If you wish someone something such as luck or happiness, you express the hope that they will be lucky or happy.

Verb + pronoun

I wish you both all the happiness in the world. (The speaker hopes that the person - or persons - will be very happy and lucky after saying goodbye to them, or after some happy event such as a wedding or positive news personal to them)

I wish you well in your journey. (The speaker hopes that the listener finds, gets or enjoys what they want from this journey they are taking and that they will be happy afterwards.)

They wished them every success in the future. (Someone or some people hope that the persons will be very happy and lucky in what is going to come in the future)

I saw Julie before the exam and she wished me luck. (Julie hopes the speaker will be successful in their exam)

BUT you cannot wish that something happens in this context. Instead - as in the paraphrasing above - you hope.

So you say I hope you do well in your exam (NOT I wish you do well)

Compare: I wish you every success in the future or I hope you will be successful in the future.

10. If you express your good wishes towards someone, you are politely expressing your friendly feelings towards them and your hope that they will be successful or happy.

Plural noun, used in politeness

Best wishes on your journey. (The speaker hopes that the person or persons will be happy in what they are doing - in this case, a journey of some kind)

All the European leaders have sent good wishes to the new president. (Europe's presidents and Prime Ministers hope that the new president will be successful and do well in their new position)

11. 'Wish' is often used as part of a number of phrases and expressions.

Wish fulfillment: hoping that a desire or wish comes true. It was just wish fulfillment on their part, thinking they would get away with just a small punishment for not paying their taxes.

Wish list: all the things which someone would like to happen although these things may be unlikely. A trip to Australia would be at the top of my wish list next year.

Wish on (phrasal verb, separable): to hope that (someone or something) should be imposed (on someone), usually used in a negative context. I wouldn't wish my luck on anyone; winning the lottery and then losing it all. I'd never wish on a death of a child. But in a positive but superstitious sense, it means to make a wish real: I used to wish on the first star at night.
to accommodate (someone's) wishes: to be able to do something that would agree with what is wanted by someone. He's a very important man, so we need to accommodate his wishes.

As you wish: to agree or comply with a decision, to do what someone wants, to agree with their decision. We can meet at your place or the bar, as you wish. 'Get me a cup of tea.' 'As you wish.'

Best wishes: a semi-formal phrase used to say goodbye at the end of a letter or message. I look forward to meeting you soon. Best wishes, Jane

Don’t you wish!: you want it to be true. Don't you wish you could drive? Getting a car for your birthday? Ha! Don't you wish! 

Dying wish: A final wish, desire, or request made shortly before someone dies. His dying wish was to be buried next to his wife.

to have a death wish: to give the impression of wanting to take all kinds of unnecessary risks. That guy must have a death wish if he drives like that.

Wish you were here: a catchphrase written on postcards by people who are away on holiday. Having a lovely time; wish you were here. Also a phrase used to think of someone, perhaps someone who has died, and so get a feeling of them being absent from their lives. They are dreaming that they are still with them. Dad would have loved this; I wish he was here.

I wish I'd said that: a comment of praise or admiration for someone's clever remark, or saying something that was very well expressed. E equals MC squared? I wish I'd said that. Or maybe not...

Well wish: an expression of good will from one person to another. There were congratulations and well wishes after the result.

Your wish is my command: An expression given by someone who does as the person asks, but usually as a non-serious or very sarcastic response, usually in the negative.  'Get me a cup of tea.' 'Of course sir. Right now, sir. Your wish is my command. Sir.' But it is also used in fairy tales by genies who, after being asked a wish, responds happily by saying 'Your wish is my command!'

12. Some sentences with wish can appear to have similar meanings, but are different. Compare:

Do you wish for more money? (Do you need more money?)

Do you have a wish for more money? (Do you dream or imagine that you could have more money?)

I wish I knew all the answers. (But I don't, and I would really like to know what the answers are to a current situation: the speaker is either taking a test now, or they are making a general comment on a situation where the answers are not readily available: I wish I knew all the answers when it comes to making important decisions.)

I wish I had known all the answers. (The speaker has probably just taken a test and didn't know all the answers, and now they regret this, or an important decision was made but without knowing all the aspects and implications of this at the time) 

I wish I didn't have to go to work. (But the speaker has to go to work, and for some reason, they don't want to)

I wish I wouldn't have to go to work. (The speaker perhaps has something else that, in their opinion, is more important and needs to be done than going to work)

I wish I stayed longer at work. (I would like to stay longer at work, perhaps do more hours regularly, but this is not possible)

I wish I had stayed longer at work (The speaker is perhaps suggesting that a task or activity they were working on could have been completed had they remained at work, or perhaps there's regret that, by staying longer at work, they would not find themselves in an unfortunate situation: I wish I'd stayed longer at work but I had to go and do the shopping!)

I wish I could have stayed longer at work. (The possibility of staying at work was not available to the speaker)

I wish I could stay longer at work. (The possibility of staying at work is available to the speaker, but for some reason, they are not able to do this)

I'm sure there's plenty more examples, and these will be added to this page at later dates...

Features   Home Page

bottom of page