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Given the choice of these two, which sound most natural?

I wish there were something I could do for you. I wish there was something I could do for you.

If both sound equally natural, I'd prefer the first.

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  • 1
    Which sounds more natural is subjective. Even to the same person at different times or regarding certain vocabulary or the perceived formality. Commented May 29, 2017 at 14:53
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    Of course if the "something" is plural it is always "were" e.g. *I wish there were chairs to sit on".
    – WS2
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 21:52
  • I will give you permission to use the first. (I like it better too!) Commented May 30, 2017 at 3:46
  • Thanks, WS2. I was wondering if "something" could take a plural.
    – Gelb
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 16:17
  • Appreciated, aparente001
    – Gelb
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 16:17

1 Answer 1

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There are two questions that need to be answered here.

First, is there still the slightest chance that there is something I can do for you? For example, I might think that there is probably nothing I can do for you, but I still need to think about it a bit before I can be sure. In that case, I'll say "I wish there was something I could do for you."

Second, how formal is the language you're using? If there is absolutely no chance that I can do anything for you, and I'm speaking formally, then I should say "I wish there were something I could do for you." If there's no chance at all that I can do anything for you, and I'm speaking in a neutral or informal register, then I can use either was or were.

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  • 1. I would like to make it sound as if there's nothing that can be done. 2. It's in an informal context. By the way, what do you make of WS2's comment above? WS2 writes that if "something" is plural, then it is always were.
    – Gelb
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 16:19
  • @user49640, would you mind explaining why it makes a difference whether or not there is a chance? Is it because having to think about it makes it a hypothetical, and therefore we need to use subjunctive mood, while if we're really sure there's no chance, then it's not hypothetical, so we use indicative mood?
    – jbyler
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 18:29

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