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Why do we use the simple past but not the present or future in the following expressions:

Don't you think it's time we went a little further

Don't you think it's time we ate

Don't you think it's time we went home

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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It's an example of the past subjunctive:

Past subjunctive

Like the term present subjunctive, past subjunctive can be misunderstood, as it describes a form rather than a meaning. The past subjunctive is so named because it resembles the past indicative in form, but the difference between them is a difference in modality, not in temporality. For example, in If that were true, I would know it, the word were (a past subjunctive) has no past-tense sense and instead describes a counterfactual condition in the present.

In addition to appearing in counterfactual if clauses (If I were there, he would know it), the past subjunctive form also appears in that clauses expressing a wish that is unlikely to be fulfilled. Usually the main-clause verb in this circumstance is wish, as in I wish that he were here now; but occasionally some other expression implying an unlikely wish is seen, as in It is high time (that) he bought a new car or I would rather that he did that. (The latter example can also be recast in the present subjunctive, expressing doubt but not as much doubt as the past subjunctive: I would rather that he do that).

Your examples are correct, and replacing them with simple present tense verbs wouldn't be standard usage.

To give the issue an extra spin, the article goes on to say that the present tense is also valid, with a slight twist in meaning:

In contrast, hoped-for things that may possibly occur take the indicative. In this circumstance, often the main clause verb is hope, as in I hope that he comes now. Likewise, in It is high time (that) he buys a new car, there is a real possibility that he will indeed do so.

FumbleFingers, in the comments below, questions the validity of the present tense construction. The outcome of our discussion (such as it was) was that it appears to be significantly less common (therefore either newfangled, dialectical, or both), and it is dubious whether most people would accept it. So my best advice is to take that paragraph with a grain of salt, and use the past tense if you want to use this type of construction.

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I can't agree your last paragraph. Introducing the word "high" doesn't change anything. The standard idiomatic usage of It's time [pronoun] [verb] always puts [verb] in the past tense (presumably because [verb] should already have been done at the time of speaking). –  FumbleFingers Mar 22 '12 at 15:19
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BTW, that's 225 results, not 31,000. And google.com shows 198 vs. 342, a much closer ratio. –  Daniel Mar 22 '12 at 15:42
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Which is actually 144 results. Not sure why Google feels the need to multiply the number by 1000 before showing it to us. –  Daniel Mar 22 '12 at 15:44
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@FumbleFingers There. Check my edit. I'm still leaving room for the present tense (just in case) while stating the fact that is isn't standard and the OP should avoid it. –  Daniel Mar 22 '12 at 17:16
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"Your examples are correct, and replacing them with simple present tense verbs wouldn't be standard usage." Can you provide a citation? I'm not convinced this is true. –  amcnabb Mar 22 '12 at 17:49
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For all three examples, the present sounds perfectly fine:

Don't you think it's time we go a little further?

It's time we eat.

Don't you think it's time we go home?

and they have pretty much the same meaning as your given sentences. The future is not allowed:

*It's time we will eat.

Also, the present progressive doesn't work:

*It's time we are eating.

This gives evidence that the first alternative given 'It's time we ate' is not really the past but is more likely a vestigial past subjunctive form.

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I don't agree; the present doesn't sound quite right here. –  Jez Mar 22 '12 at 20:42
    
Here's support and other support. –  Mitch Mar 23 '12 at 0:25
    
I think this is a regionalism. I would never use the present in any of these sentences; I believe many people would find it ungrammatical to do so; but I'm sure there are places where this usage is quite acceptable. –  user16269 May 22 '12 at 8:55
    
I prefer the link's suggested phrasings: "(Don't you think) It's time we should go home" and "It's time for us to go home"; rather than the "barren" simple present, "we go". I feel something is missing, but I can't explain why. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '13 at 3:26
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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 28 '12 at 9:43

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