6

Which one of the two forms of verb will make the following sentence idiomatic?

I wish I knew what _____ wrong with my car.

  1. Is

  2. Was

I think it should be is because the sentence is in subjunctive mood, but refers to a present situation, hence use of is is justified.

But in my book correct answer is was

  • 1
    Does scene happen in the past or present? – Cardinal Jul 5 at 19:56
  • 1
    @Cardinal in present – Kshitij Singh Jul 6 at 6:14
  • 3
    The subjunctive mood applies to the verb know, because knowing is the action that the person wishes. The word you are selecting is in the indicative mood, because the problem with the car is a fact, not a wish. Which tense depends on entirely on whether the problem is past or present. (Examples -- "I wish I knew what is wrong with my car, so I can find someone to fix it." -- "I wish I knew what was wrong with my car, before my brother sold it for parts.") – epl Jul 14 at 7:35
  • 1
    @Lambie: I suggest that you carefully read the Wikipedia article on English subjunctive, which directly contradicts every single claim in your comment, and begins with the text "The subjunctive mood in English..." – epl Jul 15 at 1:10
  • 3
    @Lambie: It seems that you hold certain ideas in opposition to mainstream consensus. I support your right to these opinions, but I suggest that you express them in a more appropriate venue, perhaps English Language & Usage. For someone learning English, it is deeply and disturbingly unhelpful to ask a simple question, and then to encounter a response that conflicts nearly universally with mainstream educational sources. In this context, I strongly suggest that you avoid comments such as "English does not have a subjective mood". – epl Jul 16 at 3:24
4

The wish is irrelevant.

The knew, whether you call it subjunctive or past, is treated as past.

Normally, therefore, the verb in the embedded question "What is wrong with my car" would get backshifted to "what was wrong with my car", as others have said.

But English speakers don't always backshift, when the situation is still current.

So you will hear both was and is here. I think was is more natural, but is occurs too.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    was and is changes the idea. I wish I knew can be followed by a clause with either was or is. by either one. Each has a different meaning. – Lambie Jul 15 at 15:58
  • 1
    @ColinFine: Are you suggesting that the subjunctive mood of the clause subordinate to wish affects the form of not only know/knew but also is/was? Note that know is not describing a past event, otherwise wish would not appear in a present form. – epl Jul 16 at 3:01
  • Wish defines the grammar of know as a predicate of the past subjunctive clause for conveying the idea of the present. Knew defines the grammar of is/was as a subordinate clause which may have a backshifted predicate according to the rules of style being similar to those of the indirect speech clauses. That is why the choice between is/was sometimes is made for the former in some contexts, for example, in engineering and machinery. This is a gist of the OP in the case. – kngram Jul 16 at 6:02
  • 2
    I might try to push back against the sense of "Normally... 'is'... would be backshifted to 'was'". Following Cambridge Grammar, criteria for favoring use of backshifting seem to be 1) subordinate clause expresses reported events, 2) main verb describes past action, and 3) main verb appears in past-tense form. Among these, only (3) is clearly true of this example, but only because of modal remoteness, which does not appear generally to introduce a context for backshifting being appropriate. – epl Jul 17 at 8:10
3
+25

2. Was seems more correct to me. Since "knew" is past-tense, the same tense should be used. It's understood that the car still isn't working because you're making the wish now.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Both are correct. – Lambie Jul 14 at 23:22
0

"Was" is correct because the sentence the verb "to be" refers here to an alternative reality where the speaker possesses the knowledge of what is wrong with the car (i.e., irrealis mood).

This bit from Wikipedia is relevant to the topic at hand:

"For most verbs, the only distinct subjunctive form is found in the third person singular of the present tense, where the subjunctive lacks the -s ending: It is necessary that he see a doctor (contrasted with the indicative he sees). The verb be, however, has not only a distinct present subjunctive (be, as in I suggest that he be removed) but also a past subjunctive were (as in If he were rich, …).

These two tenses of the subjunctive have no particular connection in meaning with present and past time. Terminology varies; sometimes what is called the present subjunctive here is referred to simply as the subjunctive, and the form were may be treated just as an alternative irrealis form of was rather than a past subjunctive. "English subjunctive - Wikipedia

As further evidence that the tense doesn't necessarily refer to time period in this case, I can imagine a scenario where a speaker would say "I wish I knew what was wrong ..." in reference to a future event (e.g., discussing an upcoming competition like a hackathon or something).

| improve this answer | |
  • Both are correct. – Lambie Jul 14 at 23:22
0

The verb of your sentence is not "knew" but "wish", and yes, it is in the subjunctive mood. Since your sentence is referring to the immediate situation, you are correct and the book is wrong. People often slur their pronunciations in situations like this, by using a contraction.

I wish I knew what's wrong with the car.
| improve this answer | |
  • A main verb may not appear in subjunctive form. – epl Jul 16 at 3:42
0

This is indeed a case of the weirdness of English subjunctive. Your book is correct that "was" is the correct choice, regardless of whether the problem is in the present, because "was/were" is also the subjunctive form of the verb "to be". The "was" (as well as the "knew") does not refer to past in this case, but the alternate reality where the knowledge is possessed.

As Benjamin notes, native speakers likely would shorten to

I wish I knew what's wrong with my car.

The ambiguity here is that "what's" could be a contraction of either "what is" or "what was" and only context tells you which it is.

| improve this answer | |
  • I wish I knew [in a present time, now] what is wrong with it [today]. versus I wish I knew [in a present time, now] what was wrong with it [yesterday or last week or when it broke down]. – Lambie Jul 15 at 17:58
0

PART ONE
The verb wish as in I wish [etc.] can never be followed by a present tense.

Usage examples:

I wish I knew his sister. [simple past]
I wish I had known his sister [past perfect] when the accident occurred.
I wish I was/were rich. The verb be can be was or were for third person singular. I wish I was/were going with you.
I wish I knew what is wrong with you.

Here is a simple rule: Never use a present tense after wish when it is expressing a wish. If you follow that rule, you will never make a mistake.

The tenses to use are: simple past, past continuous for expressing a wish in the present time
past perfect or past perfect continuous for expressing a wish about the past or with I wished [we had gone.

There are also some modals that can be but let's leave that for another day.

For example:I wish he could have been on time.

The verb wish is an oddity. It is the way it is.

PART TWO

I wish I knew [today] what is wrong [now or today] with my car.

**I wish I knew [today] what was wrong [at some past time] with my car.

Conclusion: They are both correct and each means something different.

Here are many more examples.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    True, but all irrelevant. He's not asking about the tense of know but of is/was. – Colin Fine Jul 14 at 21:47
  • @ColinFine Right, I have now made it relevant. Thanks. – Lambie Jul 14 at 23:21
  • @epl: so please show us a sentence in current English where wish is followed by a present tense. – Colin Fine Jul 15 at 8:04
  • @CollinFine: Yes, I understand your objection. I would narrow the scope of my comments to more accurately represent the actual concern, which is that whereas the original question addresses the distinction of mood, the above response rather emphasizes tense. This discrepancy may generate confusion over a relation between the two categories, in particular, that subjective mood generally requires a past tense. A response that clarifies the issue directly, separate from the specific case of the verb to wish, may serve as a more productive educational tool. – epl Jul 15 at 8:45
  • A sentence where wish is followed by a present tense. Maybe this way, pls show us a sentence in current English where wish is followed by a present tense as it is in the OP. There are many, for example, I wish I knew then what I know now (The title of a book for teachers). – kngram Jul 15 at 18:55
0

Your sentence should read:

I wish I knew what was wrong with my car.

"I wish I knew" goes together.

"Knew" is past tense. Because "knew" is past tense, you also have to use the past tense "was" in "what was wrong with my car."

To change it to present tense, you can say:

I would like to know what is wrong with my car.

I'm not quite sure why the English language works this way but it does.

| improve this answer | |
-2

Many consider it necessary to use was in such a grammar construction. Although, the same people allow the use of is in such a case, when the car remains to function improperly at the time of expressing this regret about it. So, the choice depends on the style of the accepted usage in a professional circle, where you use this grammatical construction.

Wish defines the grammar of know as a predicate of the past subjunctive clause for conveying the idea of the present. Knew defines the grammar of is/was as a subordinate clause which may have a backshifted predicate according to the rules of style being similar to those of the indirect speech clauses. That is why the choice between is/was sometimes is made for the former in some contexts, for example, in engineering and machinery. This is a gist of the OP in the case.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.