Things my students teach me: The difference between hoping and wishing.

The other day one of my former E & A (English and Academics) students came into the library, she’s in year two now.  At the end of our conversation she said to me “I hope I am in E & A class this year.”  I replied, “I’m sorry you’re not, there is no E & A class for year two students.”

And she responded, hand to heart: “I know, but I hope I am in E & A.”

It took me a moment to realise the word she was looking for, rather than ‘hope’ was ‘wish’.  Which made me really think about the difference in meaning between the two words (this happens quite a lot teaching International students, who casually use not-quite-right words, and then would like to know why those words are not-quite-right).

Both words describe a ‘want’ and yet in the above example it seems to me that ‘hope’ would mean looking forward to something you can reasonably expect to happen, and ‘wish’ is like hoping for something that you suspect (or know) can’t happen, like wanting something it is futile to want.

Looking into it further The Free Dictionary online gives the meaning of hope as “To wish for something with the expectation of its fulfilment” (2013) and Merriam-Webster “To cherish a desire with anticipation” (2013).  Whereas, wish is defined as: “A desire, longing or strong inclination for a specific thing” (The Free Dictionary, 2013), and more explicitly: “to have a desire for (as something unattainable)” (Merriam-Webster, 2013).

Except that doesn’t quite hold true for common usage because sometimes these words are used interchangeably for example: “I hope you have a Happy Birthday” or “Wishing you a Happy Birthday” (Unless of course the undertone of the later is “I want you to have a Happy Birthday, but I suspect you won’t”!)

The interesting thing about both these words is that they imply an element of doubt.  Neither ‘hoping’ nor ‘wishing’ are confident words, with a grain of doubt to hope and a seemingly much larger ‘leave it in the hands of fate’ element to wish.  And yet despite that doubt, both words have a beauty and strength to them. I don’t think wishing is futile, but maybe it is more chancy than hoping.

It makes me think about how tricky artist statements are, and how they can never really hold a satisfying meaning, because pinning down ideas into words sometimes feels like trying to catch butterflies with a teacup –possible, but likely to cause chipped teacups or torn wings.

Words can be so limiting, even if you can narrow them down to a subtle and specific meaning there is no guarantee that the reader will understand those words in the same way that you do.

Words are important.  Sometimes I feel very ill equipped to use them at all.  Which is maybe why I’m a visual artist rather than a writer.


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