Sentences with wish and if only

Introduction

The verb wish and the conjunction if only talk about situations that we would like to be different, but we cannot change. Sentences with wish and if only follow the same grammar as if-clauses in the second and third conditional.

Read on to find out the difference between wish and if only and learn which tense to use after each one. You can put your knowledge to the test in the exercises.

Example

Carla has a big English test first thing tomorrow morning and she’s feeling stressed! She’s trying to study, but a million thoughts are racing through her head:

I wish I were better at languages.

I wish my teacher would stop choosing such difficult topics.

I wish I had chosen Spanish instead.

I wish the test was next week, I would have more time to study.

Oh if only I had paid more attention in class!

Which tense to use after wish & if only

Sentences with wish and if only follow the same grammar rules as if-clauses in the second and third conditional.

Examples:
I wish I were better at languages.
present reality: I am not good at languages
If only it wasn’t raining.
present reality: it is raining
  • Remember: for wishes about present situations, we can use was and were after wish/if only in the 1st and 3rd person singular forms:
Example:
I wish I were better at languages = I wish I was better at languages.
If only it weren’t so difficult. = If only it wasn’t so difficult.
  • Use wish/if only + past perfect to reimagine a past situation.
Examples:
I wish I had studied more.
reality: I didn’t study enough
If only I had chosen Spanish instead.
reality: I didn’t choose Spanish, I chose English

Clauses with would/would have often follow clauses with wish/if only. They describe the imagined results or outcomes of the wish-clause.

Example:
I wish the test was next week, I would be more prepared.
If only I had chosen Spanish, it would have been easier.

It’s possible to say I wish that…, although that is usually omitted in most everyday contexts.

Example:
I wish that I were better at languages.
I wish that I had chosen Spanish.

What’s the difference between wish and if only?

Although wish is more commonly used than if only, there is no difference in meaning. Sometimes if only is more emphatic and expresses a stronger emotion.

Example:
If only I had paid more attention in class! = I wish I had paid more attention in class.

wish/if only … would(n’t)

Unlike standard if-clauses, we can use would with wish and if only. However, the meaning changes slightly.

Wish/if only … would(n’t) shows that the speaker is annoyed by someone else’s behaviour but is unable to change it.

Examples:
I wish my teacher would stop choosing such difficult topics.
If only my neighbour wouldn’t play the drums at night.

We only use wish/if only … would(n’t) when we want another person to change their behaviour or start/stop a specific action. To talk about states or situations we want to be different, we use wish/if only + past tense.

Examples:
Danielle wishes Malcolm would propose. (action)
Danielle wishes they were married. (state)
not: Danielle wishes they would be married.

Note: the weather is the exception to this.

Examples:
I wish it would snow.
I wish it would stop raining.

Given that wish … would(n’t) talks about behaviour and actions that are beyond the speaker’s control, we do not use this structure in the first person.

Example:
I wish I would do more sport.
= I wish I did more sport.
the speaker has the power to change this behaviour, so we use wish + past tense, not wish + would