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I Wish I Was or I Wish I Were: Past Tense and the Subjunctive Mood

In the English language, it’s not uncommon to hear others bend the rules a little bit. For example, two common past tense be-verbs that we might hear others use interchangeably are “was” and “were.” For instance, is it “I wish I was” or “I wish I were”?

The correct form is “I wish I were.” The past tense subjunctive mood “were” should always be used when referring to a hypothetical situation in the past, present, or future. In this case, the subjunctive mood most often indicates the desire or wish for something to happen in the present or future.

This article will explain the difference between “I wish I was” and “I wish I were,” why the latter is grammatically correct, and when, where, and how to use the expression. Moreover, we’ll cover the rules associated with the subjunctive mood “were” in combination with the indicative mood verb “wish.”

When to Use “I Wish I Was” or “I Wish I Were”

Before we look at the phrases as a whole, it’s essential to establish the proper applications for the be-verbs “was” and “were.” While both are past tense forms of “to be,” which one we use in a given situation will depend on whether we use a first-, second-, or third-person pronoun and the mood of the verb.

First Person SingularIWas
First Person PluralWeWere
Third PersonHe, she, itWas
Third Person PluralTheyWere
Second PersonYouWere

Was vs. Were

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells us that “was” is the past tense form of “be” in the first- and third-person singular. This means we should use “was” with first-person singular pronouns, such as “I,” or third-person singular pronouns, such as “he” or “she.”

In contrast, we find that “were” is the past tense singular form in the second-person, but it can also be the past tense plural or past subjunctive of “be.” In the past tense singular, this generally requires us to use second-person singular pronouns, such as “you,” “your,” and “yours” with “were.”

For instance, you would never say, “You was eating the food.” Instead, you would say, “You were eating the food.”

In the past tense plural, we can use the first-person plural “we” or the third-person plural “they” with “were.” 

However, in the past subjunctive, we can use any personal pronoun with “were,” including the first-person “I” and the third-person pronouns “he,” “she,” or “it.” The subjunctive mood is one of three major moods in English grammar, and we use it to indicate hypothetical situations (source).

For example, when writing in the indicative mood, we could say, “I was going to the store.” However, in the subjunctive mood, it would be incorrect to say, “If I was rich, I could afford a Ferrari.” Instead, we should say, “If I were rich, I could afford a Ferrari.” 

Normally, the pronoun “I” would go with “was,” but, in the subjunctive mood, it does indeed go with “were” instead. So, from the grammatical point of view, “I wish I were” is correct (source). 

For more on be-verbs, make sure you check out “I’m or I Am: Similarities and Differences in Usage.”

Image by Abi Ismail via Unsplash

“I Wish I Were” Meaning

The expression “I wish I were” combines the verb “wish,” indicating the desire for something, and the past subjunctive be-verb “were” to indicate a desire to be in a condition or circumstance that the speaker is not currently in.

When to Use “I Wish I Were”

For formal writing or in any situation where you want others to take your writing seriously, you should use “I wish I were” to express such a desire. For example, if your friends were enjoying a party that you were unable to attend, you might write a message to them, saying, “I wish I were there.” 

“I wish I were” examples:

  • I wish I were there to help you.
  • I wish I were joking, but I’m not.
  • My father was a great person, and I wish I were more like him.
  • I wish I were older because I really want my own house!

These are all grammatically correct examples that you would use if you want others to respect your grasp of proper English grammar. Of course, you might use any of these in simple conversation, and you would use similar constructions in any formal essay, presentation, or piece of writing.

“I Wish I Was” Meaning

Although “I wish I was” is common and has the same meaning as “I wish I were,” according to the grammatical subjunctive mood rules, the phrase is simply wrong.

Regardless, you might hear someone use the phrase “I wish I was” once in a while, either because they don’t understand proper grammar or they’re trying to sound hip. It’s not uncommon to encounter this phrase in informal speeches, music, and pieces of poetry, where all that matters is the rhythm.

When to Use “I Wish I Was”

Unless you’re trying to hide your grasp of grammar, there’s really no reason to use “I wish I was” other than to cite a good example of a bad example. You definitely do not want to use “I wish I was” anywhere in a formal letter, writing, speech, text, or presentation as it is a considerable grammatical gaffe. 

However, you might use it if you’re a transcriptionist or someone recording what someone else is saying and you have to be true to what they actually said. You might also have to write the name to the title of a song or some other work where they used the ungrammatical “I wish I was.”

The only “I wish I was” examples that you will typically find are in music videos, lyrics, or, perhaps, poetry. For instance, “I wish I was back home in Derry” by Christy Moore provides us with a good example of a sentence having “I wish I was” in an informal musical tone.

Similarly, many other songs use phrases such as  “I wish I was a Millionaire” in a very loose and ungrammatical form of English, but they convey the same essential meaning as “I wish I were.”

The Past Subjunctive “Were” and Grammatical Mood

We mentioned three major moods in English grammar, which are the imperative mood, indicative mood, and subjunctive mood. However, others include the interrogative mood and conditional mood for a total of five (source).

When we refer to grammatical “mood,” we are generally not talking about an emotional state. Instead, grammatical mood describes whether a verb makes a statement, command, suggestion, or if it expresses a desire or possibility. For instance, we use the subjunctive mood to express wishes, desires, or suggestions (source).

However, while we call it the “past subjunctive,” it can actually refer to either the present or the past.

Examples:

  • I wish I were in better shape.
  • I wish I were 22 again.
  • I wish I were there when it happened.

In contrast, the present subjunctive applies mainly to the future and only uses “be.”

Example:

  • I want all of the family to be present at the party.
  • I suggest that you be on time.

This use of terminology can be very confusing since the only reason we refer to them as the “past subjunctive” and “present subjunctive” is their basic form and appearance. As you can see, the past subjunctive and present subjunctive function quite differently than the names would imply.

Indicative Mood “Wish”

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Since we usually use the subjunctive when we express a wish or desire, the verb “wish” will often trigger the use of the subjunctive, as will other verbs such as “suggest,” “ask,” or “insist.” These verbs are all in the indicative mood, which means they make a simple statement of fact regarding what the subject is doing.

Subjunctive phrases like “I wish I were” typically have two clauses, each containing a subject and a verb. “I wish” is one clause in the indicative, while “I were” is another clause in the subjunctive.

In addition to “were,” we can also use other past tense verbs for the subjunctive. In the following example, we use the past tense of “have” after “wish” to indicate an unfulfilled desire.

Examples:

  • I wish I had more money.
  • I wish we had more space.

Wish + Past Perfect

Similarly, we also use “wish” to show regret for something that happened in the past. In this case, we use past perfect after “wish.”

  • He wishes he hadn’t bought the cat.
  • I wish I hadn’t agreed to mow this week.
  • I wish that I had worked harder at the office. 

We can also use the past perfect with “wish” to express discontent over our current circumstances or foreseeable ones in the future.

Examples:

  • I wish I were lying on a beach. 
  • I wish it weren’t raining. 
  • I wish you weren’t coming.

We can also use other past tense verbs for the subjunctive to talk about wishes for the present.

Examples:

  • I wish they spoke slower.
  • I wish I spoke French.

Conditional “If I Was” or “If I Were”?

Apart from “I wish” statements, we often use the subjunctive with “if” clauses indicating contrary-to-fact situations or stances. For instance, if we wish to show regret or indicate something that didn’t happen, we might use the subjunctive mood (source).

Examples:

  • If I were rich, life would be easier.
  • If I were smart, I wouldn’t have done that.
  • If I were my own boss, I would not work this late.
  • If my dad were ruler of the free world, he would declare my birthday a national holiday.

In each sentence, the subjunctive mood indicates that the person is not — or at least believes they are not — rich, smart, their own boss, or that their dad is not the ruler of the free world. In each case, they can only imagine or dream.

Also, notice in the previous examples how the second clause includes the modal auxiliary verb “would” for each sentence. These unreal conditional sentences begin with an if clause containing a past tense or perfect tense verb before a conditional clause that has a modal verb such as “would” or “could.”

Conditional Mood: “Would” or “Could”

We use modal auxiliary verbs like “would,” “could,” or “should” to form the conditional mood, which we use to mention uncertain situations or those that depend on something else. We can also use the conditional mood to make a request.

For more on verb tense, the conditional, and modal auxiliary verbs, make sure you read, “Meet or Met: What’s the Difference?” This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Examples:

  • I would like a slice of pizza, please.
  • We would move if we could afford it.
  • I wish I had his phone number; we could tell him the good news. 
  • I wish I could talk to her.
  • I wish that I could drive a bike.
  • I wish Murphy could help you clean up.

Final Thoughts

Always use the past subjunctive “were” instead of the simple past tense “was” for the expression “I wish I were.” While the subjunctive mood is rare in the English language compared to other languages, this is one situation where the subjunctive applies.

There are three main moods in English — the indicative, imperative, and subjunctive — that tell us whether something is a statement of fact, a command, a suggestion, or a possibility. 

The subjunctive mood lets us know that something is either not factual, is contingent on something else, or involves an emotional state like doubt or desire. Remember, “I wish I were” indicates a desire for something in the present and often for the future.

While you may have heard your favorite artist use the phrase “I wish I was,” it’s generally not wise to take English lessons from music and pop culture.