Writing Solutions | Dreams, wishes and hypothetical thinking
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Dreams, wishes and hypothetical thinking

Dreams, wishes and hypothetical thinking

Where do non-native speakers tend to make mistakes with their English?  Often, the errors appear when the grammar is very different from in their own language or where there seems to be no logic.  Dreams, wishes and hypothetical sentences fall into both these categories, making them very difficult indeed!

Dreams and wishes are unreal situations and do not refer to something that actually happened in the past.  However, in English we use the Simple Past tense to express these situations, which seems a little odd.

Eg: If I had ten children I would buy a van.  (Hypothetical condition: If + Simple Past tense followed by “would” + verb.)

Eg: I wish I could speak fluent English.  (Wish: expressed in Simple Past tense.)

The rules get stranger still for the verb “to be”.  For hypothetical situations and wishes, the Simple Past for the “I”, “he”, “she” and “it” forms is “were” not “was”:

Eg: If I were younger, I would go and study abroad.  (“Were” is used instead of “was”.)

For those of us that can remember the musical and film “Fiddler on the Roof”, we can think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man” to ensure we use the correct part of the verb “to be” for the “I”, “he”, “she” and “it” forms.

We sometimes talk in the hypothetical past, when we wish that something had happened differently.  In this kind of situation, English uses what is known as the Past Perfect (or “past-in-the-past”) tense to express the unreal event:

Eg: If you had studied harder, you would have got a better mark in your exam!  (Hypothetical condition in the past: If + Past Perfect tense followed by “would have” + past participle.  Sounds complicated, doesn’t it!  Probably best just to keep the example itself in your head!)

Eg: I wish I had studied more.  (Looking back and wishing it were different: Past Perfect tense.)

Even native speakers frequently manage to make mistakes with these hypothetical past situations.  It is very common to hear “would OF/could OF/should OF” rather than the correct “would HAVE/could HAVE/should HAVE”.

Eg: If you had arrived on time, we could OF seen the start of the match.  WRONG!

      If you had arrived on time, we could HAVE seen the start of the match.  CORRECT

For unreal situations, Spanish uses what is known as the Subjunctive Mood (Si yo fuera…, ojalá yo tuviera…).  For both forward and backward looking dreams and wishes, it is important not to try and translate, but to remember the specific rules for English, even if they are a little tricky!