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What is the meaning of "I wish _____ were _____."? Does it mean that I would prefer this thing to be the case (a) or that overall, it would be better if it were the case?

Examples:

  1. I wish I were there.

(a) I'm not there but I would like to be there.
(b) It would be (or would have been) better if I were there.

  1. I wish John were here.

(a) John is not here but I'd like him to be here.
(b) It would've been (or it would be) better if John were here but he's not here.

  1. I wish John were smart.

(a) John is not smart but I'd like him to be smart.
(b) It would've been (or it would be) better if John were smart; sadly he's not.

  • 1
    Your (a)/(b) cases are not really related to the usage of 'were'. "I wish..." is not equivalent to "it would be better if...". Is your question actually about the meaning of "wish"? – Chris Petheram Jul 17 '17 at 15:39
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To take just your second example

I wish X were here

means the same as

X is not here but I would like him to be

If there are reasons other than your personal preference for X to be present then

it would be better if X were here

would be correct.

In this case "were" has nothing to do with the past tense of "to be" but is the Subjunctive mood - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive_mood#English

"Were" for the subjunctive has largely been replaced in English in favour of "was".

I wish X was here

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  • So the same thing applies to the other sentences like I'd like x to be smart. Right ? – VeryBadAtEnglish Jul 17 '17 at 15:31
  • Yes, you can swap in any adjective or other description. - I wish X were here; I wish X were smart; I wish X were made of chocolate. – Chris Petheram Jul 17 '17 at 15:35
  • The "subjunctive was" is accepted by all, preferred by some, disliked by a few, just as it was in the 1500's. When thou disappeared, be was the only verb remaining in which the subjunctive was marked. Some of us venerate that were as if it were a sort of locket of hair, a talisman by which we remember the old tongue. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 17 '17 at 18:20
  • I've edited to account for this. Guess I'm just one of the few. – Chris Petheram Jul 17 '17 at 18:24
  • It's not just in BrE that the subjunctive is no longer taught. The same obtains in AmE. This raises hell, of course, when the student reads Shakespeare and comes upon things like "“Through the velvet leaves the wind / All unseen can passage find, / That the lover sick to death / Wish himself the heaven's breath." (Love's Labour's Lost) – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Jul 17 '17 at 18:56

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