Three Phrases for Expressing Regret in English

27 August 2020

Can you think of something recent that you wish you had done differently? I can.

Last weekend, I decided to paint my living room walls a new color. But the green I chose was a huge mistake! After painting two walls, I looked up and realized the color was terribly drab.

I regret painting the walls that green. I wish I had not hurried to paint the room. I should have tested the color first.

To regret means to feel sorry for, sad about or disappointed in something you did or did not do.

There are a lot of ways to express regret in English. Today on our program, we will look at three phrases Americans use to talk about regrets big or small. They are: I regret, I wish and I should have.

I regret...

The first phrase is "I regret." When we use this phrase, we usually follow it with some form of noun, such as a gerund, noun phrase or noun clause.

It is quite common for English speakers to follow the phrase "I regret" with a gerund. You may remember that gerunds are nouns ending in -ing.

Listen to this speaker use a gerund after the phrase:

I regret coming here. I want to go home now.

Did you find the gerund? It was "coming."

A short time ago, I too used a gerund when I said, "I regret painting the walls that green."

Sometimes we follow the phrase "I regret" with a noun phrase. Listen for the noun phrase in the following sentence:

I regret that purchase. It was a huge waste of money.

Did you hear the noun phrase? It was "that purchase."

Other times, we follow the words "I regret" with a noun clause. You may remember that a clause is a part of a sentence with its own subject and verb. Noun clauses act as nouns.

Listen for the noun clause in our next example:

I regret what I said yesterday. It was not fair. I'm sorry.

Did you find the noun clause? It was "what I said yesterday."

I wish (that)...

Next up is the phrase "I wish."

This phrase has a few uses in English. When used to express regret, we are saying we feel sorry that something was not different in the past. For example, earlier I said, "I wish I had not hurried to paint the room."

As you hear this next speaker use the phrase, make a mental note of the verb tense he uses.

I wish I had studied harder for the entrance exam.

Did you note the verb tense? It was past perfect and the verb was "had studied." When we use "I wish" to express regret, the usual verb tense is the past perfect.

However, in spoken English, Americans sometimes use the simple past tense instead, like this:

I wish I studied harder for the entrance exam.

It is also worth noting that noun clauses generally follow the verb "wish," just like in the entrance exam example and in my own statement about the paint project. You can learn more about noun clauses on earlier Everyday Grammar programs.

I should / shouldn't have...

Our final phrase for today is "I should have." When someone uses this phrase, it means something did not happen but we wish it had happened. For example, I said, "I should have tested the color first."

You may remember that the verb "should" is a modal verb. The word "have" in the phrase is part of the present perfect verb tense. The one I used was "have tested."

Now, listen to this speaker using "I should have" and take note of the verb:

I was late for work today. I should have woken up earlier.

He used the present perfect verb "have woken up."

We can also use the negative form -- "I should not have" -- to express the same general ideas, like this:

I was late for work today. I should not have slept so late.

Now, you try it! Use one or two of the phrases from this program to talk about a regret or something you wish you had done differently.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Things Americans Say...

You might hear an American say something like this: "I wish I would have studied harder for the entrance exam."

Technically, the structure "I wish I would have..." is not grammatically correct. The word "would" should not be used with the phrase "I wish" in formal English. However, in spoken American English, it is quite common and often considered acceptable.


Words in This Story

drab – adj. not bright or colorful

disappointed – adj. feeling sad, unhappy, or displeased because something was not as good as expected

phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express an idea but do not usually form a complete sentence

clause – n. a part of a sentence with its own subject and verb

verb tense – n. a form of a verb that is used to show when an action happened

modal verb - a verb (such as can or should) that is used with another verb to express possibility, necessity or permission

negative – adj. expressing denial or refusal