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 Hope / wish
we wish you a merry Christmas

J Daudt from Brazil asks:

I was told by an English teacher that the main difference between the verbs hope and wish is that when we use hope we do not know all the facts (a kind of future meaning) and when we use wish we know all the facts already. For instance, 'I hope you will be OK' and 'I wish you were here' (from Pink Floyd). This led me to think about Christmas time. Why should I say 'I wish you a Merry Christmas' instead of 'I hope you a Merry Christmas'? Is there any grammatical explanation on this issue?


Roger replies:more questions

The answer is that the verb wish is used in a variety of different ways and hope cannot be used as a 'stand alone' verb in a sentence, other than in the expressions 'I hope so' or 'I hope not.'

Let's look at wish first of all.

In your 'Merry Christmas' example, or when you wish someone good luck or Happy Birthday, you are expressing the hope that they will have good luck in the future, often in connection with a particular event, or that they will enjoy their birthday which is to come. Thus we have expressions like:

  • 'I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.'
  • 'Remember it's Sarah's birthday tomorrow. Don't forget to wish her many happy returns.'
  • 'They wished me all the best in my new job.'
  • 'I wish you good health and every happiness in the New Millennium.'
As you suggest, wish is also used when you wish that something were the case or you would like it to be the case even though you know that it is impossible or unlikely. In this sense, the verb which follows wish has a past tense inflection. Thus we have:
  • 'We wish you could be here.'
  • 'He wished he hadn't said that, for Fiona was terribly upset.'
  • 'It rained every day. I do wish I hadn't gone there for my holidays.'
  • 'I wish you didn't have to work so hard.'
Wish, as in 'wish to', is also sometimes used as a slightly more formal alternative to 'want to'. So we have:
  • 'They were very much in love and wished to get married as soon as it could be arranged.'
  • 'I don't wish to see him ever again,' she said, five months after they were married.'
  • 'He could do most of his work from home, if he wished.'
  • 'I don't wish to interrupt (your conversation), but the potatoes are burning dry.'
  • 'I don't wish to be rude, but that red dress really doesn't suit you.'

Now let's take a brief look at hope. We speak of people's 'hopes for the future' and hope normally signals future intentions. If you hope to do something, you want to do it and intend to do it if you possibly can.

Like wish it can be used with to, plus infinitive. So we might have:

  • 'I hope to be a millionaire by the time I'm thirty.'
  • 'I was hoping to catch the 5.30 train and would have caught it, if Jennifer hadn't phoned.'
However, when a new subject is introduced, hope must be followed by a clausal construction. Thus, we would find:
  • 'I hope (that) she'll like these flowers.'
  • 'Her mother hoped (that) Judith would become a doctor, but her heart was always set on the stage.'
  • 'I hope (that) you won't think me rude, but that red dress that you're wearing definitely doesn't suit you.'
  • 'They were stranded on the side of the mountain and hoped (that) the rescue team would reach them before nightfall.'

Hopes and wishes! It is my hope and wish that all of you out there reading this column will enjoy good health and every happiness in the New Millennium. Or, to put it in two other ways: I wish you good health and every happiness in the 21st Century. I hope you'll enjoy good health and every happiness in the 21st Century.

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