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I am confused a little bit about the meaning difference between these two phrases:

I wish I was there.

I wish I had been there.

Could you explain about it?

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    In both your examples, the present tense "wish" expresses your current feeling about matters. In the first, the "was" is called a 'modal preterite' where the meaning has to do with modality, not time. It presents your wish to be there as a somewhat remote possibility. But in clauses without primary tense, such as non-finite clauses, the perfect is required, as shown In your second example.
    – BillJ
    Jul 27, 2016 at 12:13

2 Answers 2

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In English, when you wish for something that is impossible to achieve, you normally backshift the tense of a verb to indicate that it is unachievable - for example, present simple goes to past simple. See here for more information about backshifting, which is also used in reported speech.

I am there -> I wish I was there

I was there -> I wish I had been there.

So, the first sentence means that you want to be there now, and the second sentence means that you want (now) to have been there at some time in the past.

Strictly speaking, be is a slight exception to the rule: you should use the subjunctive were, but it is perfectly acceptable to use the past simple was.

I wish I were there.

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  • I read a sentence: I used to wish golf was part of Olympics. Why it did not use "had been"?
    – Anubhav
    Jul 27, 2016 at 10:25
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    At the time you wished, you wanted it then, not before then. Your wish was "Golf is part of the Olympics" -> "I wish golf was part of the Olympics". Your wish was not "Golf was part of the Olympics" -> "I wish that golf had been part of the Olympics".
    – JavaLatte
    Jul 27, 2016 at 10:33
  • Is was not considered as a subjunctive?
    – Schwale
    Jul 27, 2016 at 22:31
  • @Ustanak. No, it is just a backshift of is to past simple. The subjunctive is were.
    – JavaLatte
    Jul 28, 2016 at 6:27
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There is a connection here to the "second" and "third" conditionals. In these cases, the past tense is used to indicate a hypothetical condition, rather than a past time.

Compare

I wish I was there
If I was there, I would be happy.

I wish I knew. If I knew, I would tell you the answer.

I wish I'd been there.
If I'd been there, I would have been happy.

In these cases the past tense indicates a hypothetical, or counterfactual condition and not a past time.

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