In my opinion, wishing it would ring would be used when talking about the present, not the past, just as the following sentence.

He wishes the phone would ring.

However, I saw the below sentence in Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

He sat by the phone, wishing it would ring.

I don't get the sentence, because the italic part seems to have to be fixed into wishing it'd rung. I'd like to get your explanation about this.

Thank you for your help.

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    Your suggested alternative (which is valid, but doesn't mean the same as the original) features (contracted) Past Perfect it had rung. From his point of view while he was sitting there, this refers to an unreal past (it didn't happen, which is a "fixed, unchangeable" fact), whereas wishing it would ring refers to a future event [which at the time of him wishing for it, is still possible]. Mar 15, 2022 at 18:15
  • @FumbleFingers Thank you greatly again for your excellent comment. I am sorry for responding this late. I've got your point due to your clear statement. Apr 1, 2022 at 7:04
  • May I ask you what it would be like if it were it rang or it would've rung instead? Apr 1, 2022 at 7:09

3 Answers 3


-ing clauses (like infinitive clauses) have no tense. They can be attached to a main clause in any tense, and normally indicate that the action happens at the same time as the main action:

He went out, carrying his briefcase.

He will go out, carrying his briefcase.

He was about to go out, carrying his briefcase.


(We can specify the action at a different time by using constructions like after xxx-ing or before xxx-ing, or by having xxx-ed; but if we don't do that, the clause happens at the same timeas the matrix verb).

The complication here is that the verb in the -ing clause is "wish", which can take a finite (tensed) clause as its complement. In this case, the embedded clause is backshifted if necessary according to the matrix verb, but is interpreted relative to when the wishing happens.


He sits by the phone wishing it would ring.

is present, referring to a hoped-for future event. (It could be wishing it will ring, but would seems more idiomatic to me. If the verb were hoping, then hoping it will ring is natural )

He sat/was sitting by the phone wishing/hoping it would ring.

is past, referring to an event which was future relative to when he was sitting. In the case of hoping, the will gets back-shifted to would because the matrix verb is past: this doesn't affect wishing, which already prefers would.

He will be sitting by the phone wishing it would ring/hoping it will ring.

is future, referring to an later event.

But if the embedded clause has a past tense (for a counterfactual wish)

He sits/was sitting/will sit by the phone wishing it had rung.

refers to his wishing for an event in the past relative to when he is wishing - whenever that may be specified as. This is necessarily a counterfactual.

  • Thank you so much for your elegant answer. As your answer incorporates and articulates many partition cases in regard to wish + [embedded clause] with details, it helps greatly. Apr 1, 2022 at 7:43
  • Even though your answer is already a huge help, I'd like to have this confirmed to solidify the understanding obtained from your answer. May I ask you whether, in all the pairs below respectively, one is the same as the other? (He sat by the phone and he wished it would ring ?= He sat by the phone wishing it would ring), (He sat by the phone and he wished it had rung ?= He sat by the phone wishing it had rung), (He sat by the phone and he wished it rang ?= He sat by the phone wishing it rang) Apr 1, 2022 at 7:52
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    @SmartHumanism, the first two pairs are fine, and do have the same meaning. The last pair is not idiomatic, I think for two separate reasons. First, as I suggested in my answer, wish does not easily go with simple (non-modal) verbs. We wouldn't say I with the phone rings but I wish the phone would ring. Similarly we wouldn't say He wished it rang. As I said, if you use "hope" instead, you can say I hope the phone rings. But we still wouldn't say he hoped the phone rang, because that would be ambiguous between he hoped the phone would ring and he hoped the phone had rung.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 1, 2022 at 12:44
  • Thank you very much again, for the kind, detailed answer. You mean both the two sentences in the last pair are not idiomatic nor natural, right? :) I get your point as to why those are unnatural--simple verbs not going easily with wish, and the ambiguity of meaning. I appreciate your help very much, @Colin Fine. The verb wish, for me, has always been one of the verbs accompanied by the trickiest clause structures. Now I think I've got it. Apr 1, 2022 at 12:54
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    That's right, @SmartHumanism.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 1, 2022 at 13:09

The sentence you mentioned suggests that, as he was sitting by the phone, he was wishing that the phone would ring. This means that he continuously wished that the phone would ring while he sat by it. The phrase you suggest,

wishing it'd rung

suggests that while he sat by the phone, he was wishing that the phone had, at some previous point in time, rung--not that it was ringing while he was sitting by it.


How to use Wish:

  • I wish it would ring. In the present, this is what I wish. BUT the meaning is future, as the phone has not rung.

  • I sit by the phone, wishing it would ring. [correct for what I wish for now.]

  • I sat by the phone, wishing it had rung. [correct for then, about past]

  • I wish it had rung. In the present, this is about the past.

to be as verb, simple past or "subjunctive" for he, she or it:

  • I wish you were richer. [notice: were]
  • I wish you had been richer. [notice: had been]

The continuous tenses can be used:

  • I wish he were coming today. [was is ok too, were is more elegant, present]
  • I wish we were leaving now. [present continuous]
  • I wish they had been sleeping when we got there. [today, past perfect continuous]

This answer does not deal with modals: I wish you could play tennis with me today.

Generally speaking, wish takes either would + a main verb] or were/was [to be] for present meanings and past perfect or past perfect continuous for things wished about in the past.

  • Thank you very much, Lambie, for your delicate answer, covering the basics for understanding the original one. It widened my view to the back ground of the problem. Apr 1, 2022 at 6:31
  • Can I ask you to confirm these? Are both I sat by the phone, wishing it rang and I am sitting by the phone, wishing it rang, the ringing part is at the same point in time as the 'sitting' of their respective sentences? Apr 1, 2022 at 6:44
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    @SmartHumanism How can you look my examples and ask me whether those are accurate? I sat or I sit by the phone, wishing it would ring. The verb wish, regardless of its tense, cannot be followed by simple past. The simple past, in short, is for completed actions or events. wish by definition is not. That's the whole point of wishing something.
    – Lambie
    Apr 1, 2022 at 13:57
  • Lambie, I, with all my heart, really appreciate your great answers. Actually I think your answer you posted here covers related points in a very detailed, synthetic, also systematic way, which is not only very helpful but also elegant. I wish you would forgive me when it seems like I've partly failed to understand your thorough answer. I actually asked the seemingly-not-so-smart question in the comment that can ironically be a pivot to perfect understanding of your answer. Now I understand your explanation more thoroughly. Thank you for your continuous help. I wish you lovely days. Apr 12, 2022 at 19:15
  • 1
    @SmartHumanism Well, I try to be systematic and gradual. And I also try to avoid heavy grammar references because I never learned any language with them. Only by seeing actual uses and internalizing them. You, too, have lovely days, with an s. :)
    – Lambie
    Apr 12, 2022 at 19:23

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