CAE :: Lesson 22



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Past tenses: unreal uses




The past tense is sometimes used in English to refer to an 'unreal' situation. So, although the tense is the past, we are usually talking about the present.


We use wish + past simple to talk about things we would like to be different in the present / future (but which are impossible or unlikely to change).
We use wish + past perfect to talk about things which happened / didn't happen in the past and which we now regret.
We sometimes use that after wish, e.g. I wish that I knew the answer.


It's a difficult problem. I wish I knew the answer to it!


I wish I hadn't spoken to her like that. She is so sensitive.


I wish I had more money (= but I haven't)


She wishes she was beautiful (= but she's not)


We wish we could come to your party (= but we can't)


You can also use If only... instead of wish with the past simple and past perfect. This can be used by itself (If only I knew!) or with another clause. If only is more emphatic than wish.


If only I knew the answer!


If only you hadn't forgotten the map, we'd be there by now.


If only I had more money. (= but I haven't).

NOTE: When we want to talk about things we want to happen or stop happening because they annoy us, we use wish or If only + person / thing + would + infinitive. Check these two examples:
It's really late. I wish the bus would come soon!
If only Paul wouldn't keep whistling when I'm working!



We use would rather + subject + past tense to express a preference. We can also use would rather + infinitive without to when there is no change of subject, e.g. I'd rather not talk about it. However, we cannot use this structure when the subject changes after would rather, e.g. I'd rather you didn't talk about it NOT  I'd rather you not talk about it .


I'd rather you left your dog outside – I'm allergic to animals.


Would you rather I called you back later on today?

NOTE: To show what our preference is the stress can be really important in this type of sentences. Check these examples:
I'd rather you went (= not me).
I'd rather you went (= don't stay in here).
I'd rather you called the police (= I don't want to).
I'd rather you called the police (= not the ambulance service).


We use the past simple after It's time + subject to say that something has to be done now or in the near future. We can also use It's time + to + infinitive when we don't want to specify the subject, e.g. It's time to go now. We sometimes use high before time for emphasis.


Don't you think it's time you found a job? It's six months since you finished university!


It's (high) time our government launched some measures about unemployment.

NOTE: Remember that when we want to say that now is a suitable moment to do something – either for ourselves or for someone else – we can use the structure it's time + past tense:
It's (high) time I went back home. It's really late.
It's time you paid that bill. It's getting hot in here.
Don't you think it's time you had a haircut?

On the next page you will be able to practise this grammar.


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