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How to Talk about Past Decisions and Mistakes

Nobody is perfect. We've all made mistakes in our past, so it's important to learn how to talk about past decisions and mistakes correctly. This lesson provides you with some useful phrases and language that you can use to express a mistake or regret in the past.

Adverb

Accidentally (or “by accident”): this can make it clear that the action in the clause was not your intention.

  • I accidentally got on the wrong bus. I had to ask the bus driver to stop.

Mistakenly (or “by mistake”): another way to express that this action was not intentional.

  • The waiter mistakenly charged me for two drinks, but I only ordered one.

Verb + Infinitive Verb (to do)

Forget to do: when you did not do something, you can use the verb “forget” in past tense with an infinitive verb “to do”. In this case, the infinitive verb “to do” did not happen. For example, if you say: “I forgot to lock the door”, it means that you did not lock the door because you forgot. Remember to use the past tense “forgot” because this happened in the past.

  • I forgot to bring my lunch to work. – this means I didn’t bring my lunch to work

Mean to do: when you do something wrong and you want to express what your real intention was, you can use the verb “mean” with an infinitive verb “to do”. It’s important to know the past tense form “meant” because this verb is usually used in the past tense. For example, if you say "I meant to call her back", it means that it was my intention to call her back but I didn't.

  • I meant to send you an invitation, but I forgot to do it. Sorry, I’ll send it to you now!

You can also use the verb “mean” in negative form with your real negative action in infinitive form, which means that this negative action really happened but it was not your intention. For example, if you say: “I didn’t mean to take your umbrella”, it means the negative action of “take your umbrella” happened but it was not my intention.

  • I didn’t mean to be rude, but I wasn’t feeling well so I didn’t talk much with them.

Verb + Gerund Verb (-ing)

Regret doing: when you did something in the past and it was a mistake, you can use that verb in gerund form and combine it with the verb “regret”. It’s common to use present tense “regret” because you still have this feeling now, even though the mistake happened in the past. For example, if you quit your job in the past, but now you realize it was a bad decision, you can say: “I regret quitting.

  • I regret selling my car. I hate taking public transportation!

Modal + Present Perfect

Should have done: when something did not happen in the past and you regret it, you can use “should” and then use present perfect tense to describe the good action that you didn't do. For example, if the good action of “study for the test" didn't happen in the past, you can say: "I should have studied for the test."

  • We arrived there late. We should have left our house earlier.

You can also use the negative form “shouldn’t” with a bad action to show that you did this bad action and now you regret it. For example, if you ate spicy food for dinner and now your stomach feels bad, you can say: “I shouldn’t have eaten spicy food.”

  • I shouldn’t have worn shorts. It’s so cold out tonight!

Would have done: when you want to imagine a different past situation (a situation that did not happen), you can express your intention in that imaginary situation by using “would” with a verb in present perfect. For example, if you bought something at regular price yesterday and now you find out that it will be on sale next week, you can say: "I wouldn't have bought it yesterday if I had known about the sale next week." In the imaginary past situation of knowing about the sale next week, your imaginary intention is not buying it ("wouldn't have bought it").

  • I would have prepared some vegetarian food too, but I thought that everyone here eats meat. ("preparing vegetarian food" is your intention in this imaginary past situation of knowing that a vegetarian was coming to dinner. In reality you didn't know this and you didn't prepare any vegetarian food).

Wish + Past Perfect

If you want to say something happened in the past and you can’t change it, you can use “wish” with the verb that you wanted to happen in past perfect. For example, if you say: “I wish I had saved more money”, it means the good action of “had saved more money” didn’t happen.

  • I wish I had studied more before the test. I think I failed it.

Practice

Write a sentence using the word in brackets to show regret in each of the situations below:

  1. You didn't lock your car and someone stole things out of it. (wish)

  2. You didn't bring enough money because you didn't know that it was so expensive. (would)

  3. You broke up with your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend and now you miss him/her. (regret)

  4. You wanted to buy more milk at the store but you didn't. (forget)

  5. You had the opportunity to go to university but you didn't and now you regret it. (should)

  6. You offended someone by rejecting their invitation but this wasn't your intention. (mean)

  7. You called someone "Bryan" but his name is actually "Ryan". (mistakenly/accidentally)


Answers

  1. I wish I had locked the car.

  2. I would have brought more money (if I had known that everything was so expensive).

  3. I regret breaking up with my ex-girlfriend/ex-boyfriend.

  4. I forgot to buy milk at the store.

  5. I should have gone to university.

  6. I didn't mean to offend him/her.

  7. I accidentally/mistakenly called him "Bryan".

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