ENGLISCH/770: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (129) - were or would be (SB)


129. When to use "were" or "would be"

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

My request is about a form of a sentence I heard the other day:

"I wish Gordon were more intelligent."

In my opinion, this is not correct. The speaker should have used the Conditional II instead, as in the following example:

"I wish Gordon would be more intelligent."

At least this sounds all right to me. Could you explain to me which form is grammatically correct?

Yours sincerely

Bjorn Hollborg (from Sweden)


Dear Mr Hollborg

This is a very good question, because the problem when to use "would be" and when to use "were" is mainly a matter of the following structures of a sentence and not just a question of using the right tenses.

If we are thinking about a state, such as being intelligent or not being intelligent, then the first sentence is the correct one: "I wish that Gordon were more intelligent." That means that Gordon is not as intelligent as the speaker would like. He wishes that Gordon "w-e-r-e" a more intelligent person.

We are using the word "were" which is a remnant of the subjunctive in English, because we're talking about something which is not real. It is unreal. Gordon is not more intelligent and never will be.

Now, let us look at the other sentence: "I wish Gordon would be more intelligent". If that is the complete sentence, if we don't add any more details, then "would be" is not correct usage. In this context you are thinking of a state, that can't be changed. But let us try using a similar adjective which has a slightly different meaning eg "sensible". "Sensible" means having good sense and you can become "more sensible" by getting more experience. Now, using "sensible" we can say:

I wish Gordon would be more sensible.

And it means:

I wish, that when Gordon does things he would be more sensible. I wish he would make more sensible decisions.

So, we can use "would be" with the word sensible, because sensible can be used to refer to actions or decisions which can be changed. Whereas "intelligent" seems - from a linguistic point of view - to be an unchangeable part of a person. Of course you can argue that the same is true with sensible.

Anyway, the fact remains that in English you can say

I wish he would be more intelligent in his choice of friends,

because we then think of applying intelligence to certain decisions. We can also say:

I wish he "w-e-r-e" more sensible

and there we use "a good sense" or being sensible as a permanent characteristic.

Wishing you were less reluctant in writing und would be
sending me more questions


Mrs Gobbledygook

11 March 2008