How did “to wish that” come to hate the present tense in the subordinate clauses it governs, and why is it alone in this?

Inspired by this earlier
, I’ve realized
that we have no canonical question addressing the stranglely one-of-a-kind special
grammatical rules demanded by the verb
wish of its subordinate clauses. This question seeks to
remedy that situation.

How did the verb to wish that come to require unique grammatical rules unlike any other?

The verb wish has several related grammatical “quirks” when it comes to which tenses you are allowed to use (and not use) in any subordinate clauses it governs. Notice how with the verb think you can say either of

  • I think I know. ✅
  • She thinks he knows. ✅

perfectly well, yet when switching to the verb wish you find that suddenly you cannot say either of

  • I wish I know. [ ᴜɴɢʀᴀᴍᴍᴀᴛɪᴄᴀʟ❗ ]
  • She wishes he knows. [ ᴜɴɢʀᴀᴍᴍᴀᴛɪᴄᴀʟ❗ ]

This shows that the verb wish has “special grammatical rules” about what tense you can put its subordinate clause into, “rules” that no other verb in common use in present-day English must adhere to.

How come?

The first mystery

For one thing, wish abhors the present tense in its subordinate clause completely.
These are both grammatically forbidden:

  1. I wish that she eats fish on Fridays. [ ᴜɴɢʀᴀᴍᴍᴀᴛɪᴄᴀʟ❗ ]
  2. I wish that she eats fish tonight. [ ᴜɴɢʀᴀᴍᴍᴀᴛɪᴄᴀʟ❗ ]

The second mystery

It’s not even too keen on the past tense, either, since although
(1) becomes legal if you switch the subordinate clause’s present tense to the past:

  1. I wish that she ate fish on Fridays. ✅

Attempting this same thing with the subordinate clause in (2) still leaves the result ungrammatical:

  1. I wish that she ate fish tonight. [ ᴜɴɢʀᴀᴍᴍᴀᴛɪᴄᴀʟ❗ ]

Interestingly, (4) is even ungrammatical when we explicitly switch the
referenced time to the past:

  1. I wish that she ate fish last night. [ ᴜɴɢʀᴀᴍᴍᴀᴛɪᴄᴀʟ❗ ]

This is a further unexplained special restriction on the tense of the subordinate clause, but this time even the past tense is blocked! Why can the past tense not be used in the subordinate clauses of (4) and (5) to make those grammatical, but can be — and does so — in (3)? How are those different?

All this appears to be true for other present-tense incarnations of wish
such as I have wished that. Then when you start moving into the past
tense with I wished that and I had wished that, the rules change
but even here its rules seem to remain peculiar to wish alone. (I leave those details for the answerers.)

The puzzle to be solved

How in the world did such a common verb as wish ever come to have such uncommon
— and apparently even unique — grammatical rules governing tense use in its
subordinate clause’s verb?

Do any other verbs work in this special way? Did they ever?
Is this something new or something old? Has it
always worked this way in English even before the Conquest, or did we
get it grafted onto us by the Norman French?

I’m especially looking for answers rooted in actual historical analysis, not “just because” handwaving that doesn’t address the construction’s history. You don’t have to go back to PIE
(unless you want to :), but I’d like for us to have answers whose explanations at least require
looking at this curiosity’s historical evolution.


The OED gives as sense 1a of the verb wish::

  1. a. transitive. To have or feel a wish for; to desire.

    The ordinary word for this; now always less emphatic than the synonyms covet, crave, long (for), yearn (for); in earlier use occasionally in the sense of these. Sometimes softened by could or should (would): cf. ᴄᴀɴ v.¹ 17, ꜱʜᴀʟʟ v. 19c, ᴡɪʟʟ v.¹ 40c; or strengthened before a subordinate clause (1b, 2c) by such phrases as to God, to goodness, to heaven.

    • (a) with simple object (in Old English usually in the genitive). Now dialect; superseded in standard English by wish for (see 2), or colloquial in certain contexts by want (ᴡᴀɴᴛ v. 10).

    • (b) with object clause with may or (formerly) present subjunctive, occasionally indicative: expressing a desire that the event may happen or that the fact may prove to be so, and often implying some want of confidence or fear of the opposite (now commonly expressed by hope: see ʜᴏᴘᴇ v. 3b). Also expressing a request (see 5).

    • (c) with object clause with past subjunctive (or indicative, e.g. was for were): expressing an unrealized or unrealizable desire (see also ᴡɪʟʟ v.¹ 46a), or in modern use sometimes a mild request (cf. 5). to wish to God: to wish intensely.

Here are just a few citations from sense 1a(c). The non-present-tense verbs in the subordinate clauses I have marked in bold.

  • c1000 Ælfric Deut. xxxii. 29
    Ic wisce ðæt hi wiston & undergeaton..hyra ende [L. utinam saperent].
  • 1362 Langland Piers Plowman A. v. 92
    Þenne I wussche hit weore myn.
  • c1385 Chaucer Legend Good Women Thisbe. 755
    Thys wall they woldyn threte And wysshe to god hyt were doun ybete.
  • a1616 Shakespeare Macbeth (1623) ɪ. v. 24
    That which rather thou do’st feare to doe, Then wishest should be vndone.
  • 1817 Byron Let. 25 Mar. (1976) V. 188
    Heigh ho! I wish I was drunk—but I have nothing but this d—d barley-water before me.
  • 1832 Tennyson New Year’s Eve iv, in Poems (new ed.) 96
    I wish the snow would melt..I long to see a flower so.

Swapping in the present indicative there produces ungrammatical sentences the likes of which neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare, nor Byron or Tennyson, could ever have generated:

  • …And wish to God she is done beaten.
  • That which rather thou dost fear to do, then wishest is undone.
  • …I wish I am drunk.
  • …I wish the snow melts.

Those are just as ungrammatical now as they were then. No other surviving present-ense verb still forbids the present indicative in its subordinate clause.

Sense 5 seems close to this, and also has citations showing the avoidance of the present indicative:

  1. In expressions of desire for something to be done by another, thus conveying a request; hence, to request, entreat; formerly sometimes, to bid, command:

    • a. a thing or action (with various const. as in 1): cf. ᴅᴇꜱɪʀᴇ v. 5.

    1875 B. Jowett tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) I. 429
    I wish that you would tell me about his death.

There’s also a much older, sixteenth-century citation that when rendered into modern spelling runs:

I wish rather and desire that in hope of bairns he take Margaret rather than Magdalen for his bedfellow.

That isn’t the same as the earlier examples involving would because here it takes a bare infinitive without a modal in what is sometimes called the “mandative subjunctive”, which is where a verb like demand, desire, require takes a subordinate clause whose verb is today in the bare infinitive (and used to be in the present subjunctive).


You asked quite a few questions. Here is an attempt at providing answers to a portion of them.

1. Is this something new or something old? Has it always worked this way in English even before the Conquest, or did we get it grafted onto us by the Norman French?

I am surprised you passed without comment OED’s sense 1a(b) [with object clause with may or (formerly) present subjunctive, occasionally indicative], which is now pretty much obsolete but which includes such old but attested examples as I wish I suffer no prejudice by it (1661), I wish the house is not rob’d

(1691), He is certainly bewitched: I wish the old hag upon the green has done him no mischief (1756), I wish we have not got King Stork, instead of King Log (1823). That’s your answer to this particular set of questions: the highly specialized behavior of wish is relatively new. As recently as the first half of the 19th century, wish could take as complement a content clause in the present subjunctive or even indicative.

2. The first and second mystery.

I interpret these as asking what is the actual rule that can predict what sorts of finite complements to wish result in acceptable sentences.

As I said in the comments, and as others stated in their answers (a few said this after I did, though now I see that some have also said this before I did), the answer is that a finite complement of wish must convey modal remoteness. Grammatically, this means that a finite clause complement of wish must use ether the modal preterite or else the irrealis were (the latter is what some sources call the past subjunctive, but CGEL has an argument against that analysis, pp. 87-88). This is pretty much what CGEL says in various places. Thus, for instance, we need I wish she had eaten fish last night. In CGEL, the example [29iv] on p. 1003, #wish [you passed your driving-test tomorrow], is marked (by the ‘#’) as ‘semantically or pragmatically anomalous’. CGEL says that

wish cannot be used with a ‘pure’ future, one where there is no present time involved: cases like this are still within the realm of hoping, so that instead of [iv] we would say I hope you pass your driving-test tomorrow.

3. Do any other verbs work in this special way?

Arguably, no. You can rephrase this as the following questions: 1. in what sorts of constructions do we find modal preterite and irrealis content clauses? 2. Are there any verbs other than wish that appear (when taking a finite clause complement) only in such constructions?

CGEL lists four kinds of constructions where we find modal preterite and irrealis content clauses (pp. 1003-1004): (a) remote conditionals, (b) complement to wish, (c) would rather/sooner/as soon (also prefer, as a marginal possibility), and (d) it be time. However, (c) allows the subjunctive (I’d rather it be sooner (source)), while (d) allows both the subjunctive (it is time he see that he has earned that right (source), it is time he submit his letter on no confidence (source)) and the present tense (It is time he enters into the twenty-first century or disappears. (source)); see also here. True, even in (c) and (d), the subjunctive and/or the present tense are much less frequently used than the modal preterite and irrealis, but they are nevertheless used at least sometimes. Thus, none of the other possibilities are as specialized as wish when it comes to what kind of finite-clause complements they can take.

Source : Link , Question Author : tchrist , Answer Author : linguisticturn

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