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I'm watching Suits TV Series, and there was something that caught my attention. 2 guys meet, have a drink, chat, and then one guy says:

I mean it's time I told you. I made a deal with Darby to take over the firm from Jessica.

Why is "told you" in paste tense? What exactly does it mean? He is saying that news right now. If I were to say that, I would say "it's time to tell you" or "it's time I'm gonna tell you".


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2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There is an idiomatic expression "it is time I verbed" (meaning "it is time to verb") which is fairly firmly established in modern English, but it seems to be due to a grammatically incorrect reinterpretation of an idiom. I don't believe there is any grammar justification for using the past tense here.

Look at this Ngram. While you can't deduce this directly from the Ngram, the first uses of "it is time I" all are followed either by the present ("it is time I proceed to ...") or by "should", with the majority of them followed by "should". The modal verb "should" can either express obligation, or be the past tense of "shall". In this construction, it originally expressed obligation, but people seem to have reinterpreted the usage "it is time I should" as a past tense, and started saying "it is time I verbed". During the 19th century, some people (most significantly Sir Walter Scott) reinterpreted it as a subjunctive; you can see this in the Ngram for "it is time I was/were"; this usage died out along with most other uses of the subjunctive. Today, Ngrams shows you that many people still use the present rather than the past in this construction.

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As soon as the phrase "it's time I told you" is uttered, then it has already begun to be told. Therefore, the "it's time" part makes the "told" part proper tense... without "it's time," then the word "told" would be past tense on its own, and improper tense in that sentence.

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This really is fuzzy analysis. It is also wrong. It hinges on the verb being tell in this particular case, but the verb does not have to be tell. It could be any verb at all. If I say, "It's time I built a house", that doesn't mean that the construction has begun, or indeed ever will. Frankly, it does not even mean that I intend to build it. –  RegDwigнt Aug 3 '13 at 11:57

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