Grammatically Speaking, June 2007

Dear Richard,

Please clarify for me the difference between I wish they didn’t do that and I wish they wouldn’t do that. To me they seem the same, but I have a hunch I’m wrong.

Thanks for your help.

Toby Randolph
Atlanta, GA USA

Dear Toby,

Well, your hunch is right. In this use of the verb wish, the following clause must be in the subjunctive mood because the speaker is uttering an imaginary idea, one that is contrary to reality. The speaker is using this form to communicate that he or she is not optimistic that other people can change their ways.

When you borrow the form of the simple past after wish, you create the simple present subjunctive, which means this imaginary idea applies to a general sense of time, not one specific point in time. It means that those people do whatever they do all the time, and the speaker is unhappy about that.

In contrast, when you use would after wish, you create the future subjunctive (by changing will to would), which means the imaginary idea is about something that the speaker expects to happen in the future. Once again, the speaker is unhappy about that prospect.

One other note to make about these two sentences: if the speaker says I wish they didn’t…, the statement is relatively strong. If the speaker says I wish they wouldn’t…, the statement is relatively weak, showing even less optimism that things can change.

Here are some more examples:

  • We wish you didn’t smoke. (a relatively strong statement meaning never)
  • We wish you wouldn’t smoke. (a relatively weak statement)
  • We wish you wouldn’t smoke at the party. (referring to an upcoming event, but not showing any optimism that the smoker will comply)

I hope that clarifies things, Toby. Thanks for an interesting question.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

One of my very advanced students asked me to identify the -ing form in the following sentence: The County Commission was responsible for systematically banning all books on that subject. I was ready to say it’s a gerund, but then I thought it might be a participle. Now I’m confused. Can you tell me what banning is in this sentence?

Gloria Manheim 
New Paltz, NY USA

Dear Ms. Manheim:

I can certainly see how there might be confusion over whether banning is a gerund or present participle in this sentence.

The way to identify if an -ing form is a gerund is to remember that a gerund is a kind of noun. If it operates as a noun, it’s a gerund. For example, if you can place an article and/or an adjective before it, it is a gerund (a/the banning; the unacceptable banning).

Your sentence has an adverb, not an adjective (systematically), so that’s how I know banning is a present participle in this sentence. To change it into a gerund, you’d have to use the adjective systematic and say, The County Commission was responsible for the systematic banning of all books on that subject.

Here are two more examples:

  • present participle: His coworkers complained to him about humming endlessly.
  • gerund: His coworkers complained to him about his endless humming.

A great question. Thank you!

Dear Richard,

My colleagues and I have a little running debate going. Some of us think it’s okay to say either She graduated from college in 2002 or She graduated college in 2002. The rest of us say that it’s only correct to say She graduated from college in 2002. So what’s your take on this?

Moira Kirkpatrick
Prague, Czech Republic

Dear Moira,

Those of you who say you need to use the preposition from are correct. It’s as simple as that. You don’t graduate a school; you graduate from a school.

Dear Mr. Firsten:

How do you explain the difference if there is one between He doesn’t need much help and He doesn’t need help much? This has become a mind boggler for me! Thanks for any help.

Eugene, OR USA

Dear Mind-Boggled:

In your first sentence, much is a quantifier, a form of adjective. Note that it’s commonly used in negative sentences. (In affirmative sentences, you’d normally use a lot of or lots of.)

In your second sentence, much is an adverb and means often or very often. It’s describing the verb phrase before it. Other examples of this usage are They don’t get out much and I don’t listen to the radio much.

I hope I’ve "unboggled" your mind! Thanks for a not-commonly-asked question.

Dear Richard,

Is it possible to say We don’t know who to give the prize to? Another teacher says we must say We don’t know whom to give the prize to. Which is correct?

Thank you.

Radu Rozna
Chisinau, Moldova

Dear Radu,

Both sentences are correct. Formal English uses whom as the direct or indirect object, but in conversational or informal English, it’s perfectly acceptable these days to use who as both the subject and the object. In my opinion, whom is slowly disappearing from the scene and may become an oddity if used at some point in the future.

Thanks for submitting your question.

Brain Teaser

Here’s the Brain Teaser from my March 2007 column:

English teachers normally teach the two prepositions since and for when tackling the present perfect, but there are occasions when the preposition in is likely to be used and not the other two. So my question to you is, when is it possible to use in in a sentence with the present perfect?

The first acceptable answer was sent in by Frances Dinolfo of Jackson, NJ, USA:

We can use in when the present perfect sentence is negative and a period of time is expressed, as in I haven't seen him in a week. Of course, we could also say for a weekhere. We can also use in in cases such as I've seen him in the past week, or questions such as Has anyone seen him in the past week?

I look forward to seeing if there are any other cases, so I can show this to my intermediate students as yet another way to use this often puzzling form.

Thanks for a nice, concise answer, Ms. Dinolfo. The preposition in is commonly used, especially in American English, in negative sentences with the present perfect as an alternative to for. It can also be used in those negative sentences with phrases like in the past week/month/few days, and so on.

And now for a new Brain Teaser:

What role does over play in the following sentences?

  • He went over to his friend’s house.
  • They flew over to Bimini.
  • She ran over to the grocery before it closed.

Please e-mail your responses to, or send them in by snail mail to

Richard Firsten
c/o Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center
750 NW 20th Street
Miami, FL 33127 USA

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