Ich wünschte, ich könnte mehr tun.

English Translation

I wish that I could do more.

Why is ‘to wish’ in the past tense here?

Konjunktiv II is about describing hypotheticals. It roughly matches up with the subjunctive in English, although the subjunctive is slowly dying out of the English language:

Ich wünschte, dass es wahr wäre = I wish that it were true

In modern English, it’s common to (incorrectly) use the indicative there (I wish that it was true), but never mind. Konjunktiv II in German has more of an effect on verb forms than the subjunctive does in English, and so we see that sometimes verbs appear to be in the wrong conjugation, but they aren’t. It’s just a different verb mood (Indikativ versus Konjunktiv II in German, indicative versus subjunctive in English).

I wish that you had told me = Ich wünschte, du hättest es mir gesagt (or “I wish you would have told me”)
I wish I could have done more = Ich wünschte, ich hätte mehr tun können (or “ich könnte mehr tun”)

We’re in Konjunktiv II with these examples because we’re describing a hypothetical.


In German, if you know that your wish can’t (currently) be fulfilled, then Konjunktiv 2 applies to the verb “wünschen” too. English does not apply the same logic.

We are talking about unfulfillable wishes here, therefore we need Konjunktiv 2. Be careful: “wünschte” isn’t (in this case) the past tense of “to wish”, it’s the Konjunktiv 2. The past tense and Konjunktiv 2 of “wünschen” just happen to be identical.

Let’s look at some examples:

You know your wish can be fulfilled:

  • Ich wünsche mir einen Computer zu Weihnachten.
  • I wish for a computer for christmas.

You know your wish cannot be fulfilled:

  • Ich wünschte, ich wäre größer.
  • I wish I were bigger. (English does not use the conjunctive for “wish” for unfulfillable wishes.)

Your wish is unfulfillable, but you are not aware of that (as young children are, for example):

  • Ich wünsche mir meine tote Großmutter zurück.
  • I wish my dead grandma were alive again.
  • A not-so-naive grown-up (who understands how permanent death is) might instead say “Ich wünschte, Großmutter wäre am Leben.” (“I wish Grandma were alive.”)

So whether you use “wünschte” or “wünsche” depends on whether you yourself are aware that your own wish can’t be fulfilled.