Past Subjunctive (Unreal past)-Confusion

Hi Friends,

Could anyone kindly explain the difference between the following sentences:

  1. It is time we left.
  2. It is time we were leaving.


Just have a read here:

Dear Eugene,

Thank you very much for sending the link. I have gone through the link you sent. The main problem with me is to understand the situation in 2nd sentence. It is apparent from the example quoted by Alan that he has consulted Practical English Grammar by Thomson and Martinet before writing this article. According to Alan the 2nd one has the greater urgency. But according to the book it implies that it is a little late. Since I am not a native English speaker, i am very much confused about it. Could you kindly clarify it.


I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Practical English Grammar by Thomson and Martinet, and don’t quite understand what you mean by saying “it implies that it is a little late.”

Using “It’s time we did\were doing something” means that something is not happening, but it should be happening: “It’s time we left. Our son will be home soon and he doesn’t have a house key.” It doesn’t mean that you’ve missed out on something—you’re not late yet; you just recognize you should do something to change the situation (say ‘bye’ to the hosts and grab a taxi to be home on time.)
In “It’s about time you started looking for a job. You can’t depend on us all the time.” it’s still not late for you to change the way things are and start working. (Whether you do it or just keep on idling away is another question.)

As to the distinction between ‘…time we went’ and ‘…time we were going’, Mister Micawber and Alan, both English native speakers (which I am not), assessed it a bit differently: more tentative\polite vs more urgent. Some English native speakers don’t see any difference at all…

Dear Eugene,
Thanks again.
However, the clarity expressed in the said book is really unprecedented and unique. Alan is a great admirer of the book, which can be understood from the following link:

Frankly speaking, I wanted/expected Alan to comment on this. Unfortunately, Alan does not respond to any occasion these days for the reason known best to him.
Eugene, whatever you have said is easily understandable. The book elucidated all the points of Subjunctives, except this one. Very few books cover Subjunctives so extensively as this. I have a great collection of grammar books (published from UK). But, none of them clarifies this difference. You may well suggest me good ones. I would have it.
I don’t know whether Alan would address the problem. Otherwise, it will haunt me rest of the life.


Sorry to disappoint you by my answer, but nowadays I don’t follow any grammar book in particular, and hardly can advise you one. I’m much more interested in the way English native speakers go about things in everyday situations, and how and why they sometimes get around grammar.
Just as an observation, we learners pay much more attention to grammar in an attempt to sound ‘correct’, than those ‘born and bred’.

P.S. I wouldn’t let anything, let alone a grammar problem, haunt me for the rest of my life. :wink:

There is no point of being sorry. I always appreciate any kind of reply from boarders. I don’t have any interest how English native speakers speak in everyday situation. I think you must have gone the link I sent. What native English speaker says is colloquial English, which often doesn’t conform with standard English Grammar. English Grammar is universal. Frankly speaking, I often rise new topics so as to be confirm what I know is correct to what extent. English is my passion, profession and avocation too. Above all, I would like to advise you to get a copy of the book and enjoy English. thanks,

The conspicuous difference between the two sentences, as anyone can discern, is that while No.1 is in the past simple, No.2 is in the past progressive. Both should mean more or less the same to me. In either case, the speaker suggests that ‘leaving’ should not be delayed any further. It is, therefore, desirable and advisable that ‘We should be leaving now by all means’.

(It is already time for us to have left or It is already time for us to have been leaving)

Hi Anglophile,

Pl. go through the link send by Eugene. There is slight difference between the sentences in question, which you did not address.
However, after revision and rethinking I have come to the following conclusion:

Suppose, I have to catch a flight scheduled to fly at 2000 hrs. today and it takes one hour to reach airport from my residence. Airport formalities take 45 minutes. Now, considering the fact that there may be traffic jam or other unforeseen factors, I should start at least 30 minutes earlier so as not to miss the flight at any cost.

In view of the above, I can say the following in respective situation:

At 1745 hrs. (60+45+30) : It is (high) time to leave. (Correct time to leave)

At 1800 hrs. (60+45+15) : It is (high) time we left. (A little late and thus, there is some urgency)
At 1810 hrs. (60+45+5) : It is (high) time we were leaving. (Quite late and thus, there is greater urgency)

I would appreciate any comment on my understanding/observation.

I don’t find any link to your question from the link, which is about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Frankly, I’d say that the original expression is: It’s time/high time we left. Other variations might occur due to the conceptual need/mood of the speaker. I don’t think, as non-native speakers, we can deviate from what has been recognized as the usage in practice among native users of the language although one could still bring in situations like It is time we should leave, It is time we had left etc etc.

Here is the link :

" It is time we should leave, It is time we had left etc etc." - These variations are not possible since they are not in subjunctive form.

Thank you; I was able to read and enjoy the beautiful article by Alan.