If Only I Had Known

By Maeve Maddox

Have you ever noticed how many websites offer lists of things their authors wish they had done differently in the past?

The Workplace Tips I Wish I’d Known From the Start
Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married
67 Things I Wish I Had Known At 18
What I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Business

Unfortunately, not all the bloggers who express their regrets and offer the fruit of their experience do it grammatically. For every one who writes, “I wish I had known…,” another five write, “I wish I would have known…”

Oh, the things I wish I would have known then that I know now…
30 things I wish I would have known about life
Things I wish I would have known when I got started in software development

Would does not belong in the subordinate clause of the lament.

The verb wish is followed by the past perfect: I wish I had known then what I know now.

A similar error occurs with the use of “if” clauses.

If I Would Have Known Then What I Know Now- 29 Business Owners Speak Out

Again, the would is unnecessary: If I Had Known Then What I Know Now.

Because hindsight is universal, we all need to know how to wish things hadn’t happened, so while we’re at it, we may as well look at how to make wishes about the present and future.

Use past tense to wish regarding the present:

I don’t like this neighborhood. I wish I lived in Bellaire.
My car is a wreck. I wish I had the money to buy a new one.
My husband works all the time. I wish he were not so busy.

Note: “If I were” is the older way of expressing a wish in the subjunctive mood. Like the use of “whom,” the subjunctive in English is dying out. I think most authorities see the take-over of “if I was” as inevitable, but some still feel it should not be used in formal written English.

Use past tense modals would and could to wish regarding the future:

I don’t like this neighborhood. I wish I could move to Bellaire.
My car is a wreck. I wish I could buy a new one.
My husband works all the time. I wish he would quit that job.

And, as already mentioned, to wish the past had been different, use the past perfect:

I wish I had majored in computer engineering instead of literature.
Jack wishes he hadn’t run with a bad crowd in high school.
We all wish we hadn’t eaten so much at the picnic.

Happy wishing.

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5 Responses to “If Only I Had Known”

  • thebluebird11

    Happy “Thanks-wishing” to you too!
    I am sure that later we will all be wishing we hadn’t eaten so much at our Menurkey dinners LOL…happy Thanksgivukkah to all 🙂

  • Dale A. Wood

    That use of the word “would” when it is not needed is indeed dreadful!
    There is not any logic to it.

    Also dreadful is the use of the word “would” to refer to events that happened e.g. 200 years ago. “Would” is a verb in the subjunctive mood for future possibilities. (It is the subjunctive of “will”.) Events that are part of verifiable history are not subjunctive at all. They did happen.

    Reprentatives of the United States and the United Kingdom did sign the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814. (“would sign” doesn’t have anything to do with it). That was the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, a war that was in action 200 years ago as I write this.
    D.A.W.

  • Marion L ane

    On the subject of giving thanks… I say thank heavens I grew up hearing and of course reading English spoken correctly. I don’t think there’s any way I otherwise could have learned and applied the rules for wishing and if-onlying in the past, present, and future.

  • Cable Hills

    “If I was” just grates. It is my red flag.
    Some say that proper grammar is the main determinate of status in the United States. “If I was” is the litmus test.

  • venqasx

    “Some say that proper grammar is the main determinate of status in the United States.”

    Or main determinant, maybe. You see, there are these litmus tests…(j/k):)

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