- For Teachers
Which of these two grammars is correct to use for present tense?
1. It is high time we went upstairs
2. It is high time we go upstairs
But this sentence is not in the past tense; unless you are claiming that it is, with a present/future meaning.
I'm not completely comfortable with 'subjunctive' either, but it is something that's "contrary to fact" in the present (We haven't gone upstairs).
I can't find any such uses of the preterite on the web, eg.
Preterite - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
So, perhaps you could elaborate, and we can find the real answer.
It's confusing to use the term "preterite" it means different things in different languages, you won't find it in Quirk because in general we don't use that term in English, I teach only French people and confusion over the word "preterite" is common, it means something different in French to what it sort of means in English.
Also, I agree zillions of people consider "If I were you..." to be a subjunctive: it's hypothetical, as the subjunctive usually is; it's not the usual present indicative form; it could be something like a subjunctive.
However, I think we need to recognize that the subjunctive is an Indo-European verbal mood (I prefer the term modality or mode, but hey...) which has all but left the English language. There are only a few cases where we tend to see its survival, and these uses are not often obligatory, just sound slightly more formal, or more educated, when we use the subjunctive rather than the indicative.
I feel it is important that we be ready.
I feel it is important that we are ready.
My thought is that if we want to find the subjunctive in English, with the most certainty possible, we ought to be archeologists and look where fossils are likeliest to be found: in the types of structures that call for the subjunctive in all the other Indo-European languages.
These are, very generally:
* Expressions of wish, fear, strong emotion (but the action is has not been realized, so it's still very hypothetical)
* Expressions of doubt, relative improbability (again, hypothetical unrealized)
* After conjunctions which logically imply non-realization (e.g. avant que, 'before that')
We can also observe that few or none of our IE cousins use a subjunctive as a condition, to introduce the conditional. They all use a preterite or imperfect in such cases:
Si j'avais 1 000 000 de dollars, j'achèterais une grande maison.
[condition in past imperfect] [conditional]
Most languages in the family are the same. Even the Indian dialects.
But when we see true instances of the subjunctive in such languages, we see that they often resemble imperatives much more closely than past tense forms, such that the imperative might be a class of subjunctive. The examples I can give readily are from French, but I have discussed this with other IE speakers in the past, who have confirmed cases in other languages.
"Soyez prudent." (Be prudent.)
"Il faut que vous soyez patient." (It's necessary that you be patient.) A real subjunctive.
"Ayez de la patience." (Have some patience.)
"Bien que vous ayez la grippe..." (Though you may have the flu...)
Only a minority of cases see a vast difference between imperatives and subjunctives of similar verbs, they are often spelt and pronounced similarly.
In English, it would seem a good observation is this: to form the correct spelling of our original Indo-European subjunctive, take the stem of the infinitive (have, be, etc.) and you will have the spelling of the subjunctive.
This is often accompanied or preceded by expressions of doubt or possibility, as in other IE languages: may be, might be, that you might be, that you may have.
So I have my doubts that "we went" is a subjunctive, given the broader context. Though I always agreed it has a function rather like a subjunctive, logically speaking.
Last edited by konungursvia; 03-Sep-2009 at 14:16.
We both agree on what a real subjunctive is, so we can leave that aside.
My problem is how to explain this construction to learners. If it's not subjunctive, and not preterite, how is this sentence (and others that use the imperfect form with a present tense or future meaning) parsed in traditional grammar?
It is high time we went upstairs
If you went to the party next week, you might meet new friends.
My reason for calling it subjunctive is that it is "kind of subjunctive" in that it is not indicative, it's hypothetical, and learners understand this concept of subjunctivity being expressed in a different formal tense.
If it is 'preterite', we might as well say it's simple past tense (since, as bhai points out, we don't do preterite in English); then we are left with explaining why it is high time we did something in the past.
Other teachers, how do you explain this construct to students?
It might be a case of semantic plasticity: meaning one thing in the beginning, and then being taken in another way later on.
It's high time we went upstairs.
"We went" might have been a description of a habitual past action. If it's the usual time by which we ordinarily have gone upstairs, and always have done in the past, I can see older forms of English constructing "we went" as a summation of past habits. What do you think?
It might be the same with the past / past imperfect introducing a condition: If I had a million dollars could mean 'if I had received it in the past... then...." rather than that special hypothetical something we take it to mean nowadays.
So maybe, certain very peculiar past tense cases were so successful at signifying alternate universe hypotheticals that they took on an additional verb-mood sense through such usages.
Perhaps this thread is one of those tricky little “tense” questions that might not have so much to do with time, but rather with distance? Could we think of the present tense being “here” and the past tense being “there” or farther away? In that case, the idea of distance can be exploited for pragmatic ends. A super typical example would be the tu/Ud. use in Spanish. Referring to someone in the third person puts distance (in this case social distance) between people.
But distance can have social impact in other ways too. Something that is closer (or “here”) can often be interpreted as being “stronger” than something that is farther away (or “there”); just like smells get stronger as you get closer to them.
English speakers often exploit this use of distance to modify the strength of what they are saying – that which is farther away (past tense) being weaker than that which is closer (present tense). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the classic “If I win the lottery….” 1st conditional is more “probable” than “If I won the lottery….” since it’s more “here” than “there”?
Let’s go to the example at the top of this thread:
1. It is high time we went upstair
2. It is high time we go upstairs
#2 is in the present (it’s “here”) while #1 is in the past (it’s “there”). SO #2 is going to sound stronger.
Perhaps some context might tease out this difference a bit more:
Frank and Joe drink at the same bar, but they hate each other. One day Frank looks at Joe just a little too long and Joe says:
- It is high time we step outside
- It is high time we stepped outside
Which one is stronger?
For a much more detailed explanation of this time/distance question in English verb tenses, as well as some pretty good suggestions about how to bring this kind of material into your classroom, check out The English Verb, by Michael Lewis. It’s a classic on the subject.
author of The Secret Lives of English Verbs