In some languages you use the subjunctive to express a wish or describe an unlikely or impossible event. However, such a tense doesn’t exist in the English language.
Does that mean that everything is certain and possible in the English speaking world? Obviously not!
What happens is that you use a past tense where you would have used a subjunctive if you were Italian or Spanish. These are a few examples I could think of:
- I wish I was a millionaire
- If only the baby was sleeping
- I’d rather you didn’t see her tonight, I don’t like her
- It’s high time you went to the hairdresser, you hair is so long!
- If I spoke Chinese , I’d move to China
Do the above sentences refer to a present, future or past situation?
All five examples, despite the use of the past simple tense or past continuous (example 2), talk about the present or the future.
So what if you actually want to use structures such as “I wish” or “I’d rather” etc to talk about the past?
Well, you simple have to go one step further back in the chain of past tenses. So if you use the past simple to talk about the present, you’ll have to use the past perfect to describe an event or situation in the past. Here’s a few examples:
I wish I spoke English. (PAST SIMPLE)
I wish I had studied English at school. (PAST PERFECT)
I’d rather you went with her to the meeting. (PAST SIMPLE)
I’d rather you had gone with her to the meeting yesterday. (PAST PERFECT)
If I had known you were coming, I’d have gone to the party. (third conditional)
Hope it helps!