about "it's time you sold that old car" - the story continues

It’s about time you sold that old car."

The sentence above could be a reference to either the past or the future.
To me, if you change that sentence to

  • “It’s about time you sell that old car.”

then it is clear that the car has not been sold yet, but the the speaker thinks it is advisable to do so soon.

So, if I want to emphasize that the person has not sold the car yet but I want him to do so, I find it advisable, the best and perhaps right choice is the second example?
“It’s about time you sell that old car …” I do not know if anyone knows Swedish, but it is from this language that I translated the phrase from and into English. In Swedish the phrase was: “Det är på tiden att du säljer den där gamla bilen och köper en ny.”

I understood the Swedish phrase, but I don’t think the English one works the same way.

“It’s about time you sold that old car.” (It indicates that you should sell the car in the near future.)

“It was about time you sold that old car.” (You have sold the car, but you should have done it a long time before you did.)

The problem is that “sold” here is some kind of conditional form, and although it looks like the past, it doesn’t really have any tense at all. It’s the verb “be” in the first clause that indicates whether the selling happens in the past or future.

Notice that for the future meaning, you can also put it in the subjunctive:

“It’s about time you sell that car.”
“It’s about time he sell that car.”

The subjunctive has no verb tense, so it’s basically the same situation, where the time reference is determined by the first verb.

Hej så länge!

Hi Jamie

I agree that this would usually refer to selling the car in the near future, however I disagree that that is the only usage. I’d also expect to hear it sometimes used to talk about a sale in the recent past (and the broader context would clarify this).

Right, but it would have to be in the VERY recent past – as in just hours before.

Even so, once the car is definitively gone, even if it was sold an hour ago, the more probably usage would be, “It was about time you sold that old car.”

What about: It’s high time for you to sell that old car?

Is there any significant difference in meaning? I can’t see it.

Many thanks,

“It’s time you sold that old car.” = This car has been old and troublesome for a long time, and you should have sold it a long time ago, so do it now.

“It’s time for you to sell that old car.” = This car has recently started causing enough trouble, so now you should sell it. It has just reached the point where you should sell it.

Just one more:

“It’s time for you to get a car (not new)” and “It’s time you bought a car”.

Is the latter okay? I think people only say the former.


People say both of them.

Okay, thanks. You’ve been very helpful!

That’s interesting; Amy mentioned it too. In BrE, you wouldn’t hear a present subjunctive with “It’s about time”; only a past tense form.

Would “It’s about time he were here” be heard, in AmE, out of interest? (I think BrE would mostly stick with “was”.)


Actually, MrP, while the present subjunctive is possible in AmE, it sounds a bit awkward to me, and I had to think about it a lot before I decided it was acceptable here. I think that even in AmE the past tense form is definitely preferred.

I agree that the past form of the subjunctive would be much more commonly used than the present form in the expression “It’s about time that…”

Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but I wouldn’t call the use of the present subjunctive in this phrase awkward. I’d just say that it is used, but that this usage is much less common.

Hi MrP
I’d expect to hear “It’s about time he was here” on this side of the pond, too.