What does "Would That It Were" Mean?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The expression would that it were implies a wishful or idealized alternative to an undesired reality. In other words, the speaker wishes for a different set of circumstances or outcome than the real situation he or she is in. Sometimes the expression is extended to "would that it were so" or "would that it were true." All of these variants still suggest a strong desire for at least one change in the present circumstances. When a talented athlete becomes injured and has to be replaced during an important game, for example, the teammates may strongly wish he or she were healthy enough to perform. The coach could respond with "Would that it were so, but we don't have that option right now." The speaker agrees with the sentiment, but also realizes that a desired change could not take place in reality.

"Would that it were" suggests regret or a wish for an alternative to what is true.
"Would that it were" suggests regret or a wish for an alternative to what is true.

Expressions such as this are prime examples of what English instructors call the subjunctive mood. A sentence written in a subjunctive mood implies a wishful state of being or a hypothetical situation. Many times such a sentence is prefaced with words such as would, could, should and if. A teacher might tell his or class that should school be canceled the next day, students would have an extension on their projects. These are not statements based on facts, but rather conditions based on possible or hypothetical conditions. "Would that it were" accomplishes the same thing by implying a theoretical or hopeful condition.

Some may even read more into such a subjunctive statement. The speaker is not only acknowledging a hypothetical alternative, but is also suggesting the alternative would be preferable in some way to the reality. The coach really would rather have the injured player back on the roster rather than rely on a less experienced substitute, for instance. In a sense, the speaker is agreeing with the conditional or hypothetical statement, but must resign himself or herself to a less desirable reality. If the reality means a loss or a setback, it would not be unusual for a person to wish for a viable alternative. Many people use the American expressions in a rueful or nostalgic sense, hoping against hope that a situation or circumstance could be altered.

Many foreign-born speakers find it difficult to grasp the concept of a subjunctive mood in English. Many of the standard subject/verb agreement rules change whenever the sentence's mood shifts to the subjunctive. The shift from "was" to "were" in the expression, along with the modifying "would," indicates a change from the real to the conditional, which can be very confusing for beginning and non-native English speakers. This is why most English grammar instructors drill their students on the subjunctive mood along with the reality-based indicative mood. Idioms such as this are ideal examples of the difference between subjunctive and indicative moods.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Why "it was" is wrong, but not always:

a. If only it were Saturday, I could stay in bed all the day.

b. If only it was Saturday, I could stay in bed all the day.

c. If only it were the wrong answer that caused them to suspect me.

d. If only it was the wrong answer that caused them to suspect me.

I think a. and d. are correct. Reason: d. is not "dreaming" - it is a fact and solid - it is not followed by a "could", "would" or "should".


Or even: Would that it had been a few minutes earlier the barman would have surely served me.

(modern (wrong) way: If it was a few..., or, correctly: If it had been...)

I think this shows the subjunctive falling back one level of tense nicely.


By the way, "would that it were" is, in my opinion, one of the most underused constructs in the English language.

English was always an artificially simplified uni-language (like Urdu and Italian) and we should therefore try to retain any idiosyncrasies which have survived since they add much needed color, as they do in French and other Romance languages.


I think "Would that it will be .." actually is formed as "Would that it would be .." which admittedly sounds silly, but since the subjunctive effectively knocks back the tense one level, the future becomes future imperfect.

So "Would that it would rain, my tomatoes will win the prize." Because "Would that it were to rain, my tomatoes will blossom" - sounds disjointed, tense-wise.


Just wondering: Is it possible to say "would that it will (be so)"?


@Markus - The word subjunctive is a verb mood. It’s used to express an action and is most always used for expressing a wish with a strong emotional attitude towards an uncertain condition. I know that’s a long definition, but some words you hear a lot when expressing a subjunctive mood are doubt, desire, wish, denial and uncertainty. I don’t have a degree in English, but you can Google it to get more information.

The phrase, “would that it were” was used often in 19th Century Speech and Literature and almost always was used in a romantic way. People do still occasionally say it even though it is somewhat old-fashioned.


@anon169514 - I agree with you, it is a long way to state something so simple. Who really talks like that anyway, "would that it were?" And what the hec does subjunctive mean? I took English all 4 years in high school and never heard that word before. Wouldn't it be easier to just say "I wish that..."?


Seems like a long way to state that "would that it were" is synonymous with the common expression "If only".

Post your comments
Forgot password?