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Yesterday I tried to help a native Chinese speaker use these words better: in Chinese, there is one common word which means both hope and wish, so she has trouble picking which one to use.

She originally said, while shopping, something like I hope these items are on sale. I explained that she could say I wish these items were on sale, I was hoping..., or I had hoped... But I couldn't really figure out the logic of why we use hope in the latter 2 cases but wish in the first case. Is there any logic here or should I just explain that it's an idiomatic thing she has to learn?

I don't need help with the alternate meanings of these words: those are easier to teach.

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You use "hope" in the past tense because, by definition, "hope" applies to the future. Once you know it's not on sale, there is no point hoping anymore.

"Wish", used in the present tense, means that you currently want reality to be different than it really is ("I know it's not on sale, but I want it to be").

That said, you can also use it in the past tense: "I was wishing these were on sale", although I don't think that's as commonly said.

  • One thing that confuses me, even as a native speaker, is why we don't say "I wish it is on sale", but say "I wish it was on sale". It seems to change tense mid-sentence, but the consistent version sounds very wrong to my ear. Your explanation about hope makes sense, so I'm trying to figure out whether it also applies to wish (in which case tense won't distinguish the two words). – Matt Chambers Oct 2 '17 at 17:58
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When you "hope" for something, there are two options. It happens or it doesn't:

I hope these items are on sale, but perhaps they are not.

A "wish" is simply something you want or want to happen:

I wish I could afford that necklace.

You could say:

I wish these items were on sale.

This just indicates what you want, but not any expectation that they are (or aren't) on sale.

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