Some expressions sound so awkward in English that one can be tempted to say they violate the rules that govern the language. Grammarians normally insist that no one should break these rules. What makes the matter more intriguing is that when you attempt to ‘correct’ such expressions — banking on common sense — you end up committing errors.
It is high time the President listened to his wife.
It is time the President listened to his wife.
If one had to follow popular grammar rules, the choice of tense in ‘listened’ in the two statements would be wrong. The logical question is that since that action has not taken place, why should we use the past tense? Of course, the matter gets trickier with the second sentence, where we have ‘It is time the President listened…’, without the inclusion of high.
The fact is that both expressions fall under a category that operates outside general English grammar rules. They are fixed expressions that must be mastered and used accordingly. The linguistic sentiment governing the statements is that the action expected to be carried out is almost late. When we have ‘high time’, it even suggests that it is almost terribly late. The ‘strange’ past tense thus paints the picture of the urgency required:
Our exam will start next week. It is time I started reading.
Our exam will start tomorrow. It is high time I started reading.
Whenever you, therefore, come across the construction, remember that it comes with the past tense. Indeed, it is time you bore it in mind; just as it is high time you stopped wondering why.
The subjunctive mood
Many of the expressions with peculiar grammatical arrangements are usually discussed under the term, subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood expresses ideas that are hardly real. It indicates imagined and often unreal situations. Even when some of such situations are real, they are exaggerated. The mood that the grammatical phenomenon captures includes wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred. This is why it is contrasted with the indicative mood, which expresses real actions and works according to normal grammar rules:
If Akin comes tomorrow, I will explain to him.
Today is October 18. It is time to start preparing for the party.
The time is 3:30 pm. It is time to go home. I think it is time to go.
The actions are usual and realistic in the above sentences. So, the verb forms are selected according to grammar rules. But the subjunctive mood manifests in such a way that in some expressions where you would normally find a verb in the present tense, you find the present form being used; where you expect the present, you could find the past:
If I were you, I would simply go and beg him.
I wish it were December.
It is imperative that everyone go tomorrow.
I would rather you went there tomorrow.
Consider the first statement – If I were you, I would simply go and beg him. Some people will wonder why not ‘If I am you’. The linguistic logic here is that you can never be the other person. Some even attempt to ‘correct’ the expression by writing ‘If I were you, I will …’ This is still wrong because were cannot be separated from would in the context.
The same applies to If I were the President, I would … You should not write if I am the President I will… or If I were the President, I will… For now, you cannot be the President, even if this can happen in the future. Indeed, if the vice president, whose office is the closest to the president’s, has to say the same thing, he must still say If I were the President.
In I wish it were December, the speaker or writer is dealing with a strange wish. This is October; it cannot ever be December until after another two months. But if the ‘wish expressions’ can be explained away like that, what happens in the case of I would rather you went tomorrow, where went is used for an action that is not happening until tomorrow? Again, the underlying factor is that the speaker’s conviction about the time the listener should go is absolute and the past tense is being used to echo it.
The subjunctive mood can also come in the form of some –be expressions. As usual, there is something awkward about them:
I don’t think it is important the woman be involved in the matter.
We were all determined the job be standard.
Uses of the subjunctive mood
As some of the examples already given indicate, the subjunctive mood is used to express pure supposition, which is not too far from daydreaming:
If I were the Super Eagles Coach, I would not bring Enyeama back into the team. (Sorry, you are not, and you cannot be the coach now.)
If I had my way, I would send all Nigerian politicians to jail. (Too bad, you may never have your way.)
It is used to express a wish.
I wish today was Saturday.
I wish Nigeria was America. (Well, some people would still argue that if Nigeria was America, the black man’s mentality would still not let it work like America.)
It expresses imaginary things or conditions.
If I were Mikel, I would leave Chelsea immediately.
It also indicates requests, demands or commands:
Mr. Johnson requested that Sade leave the same day.
The chairman decided that she write a letter of apology.
The subjunctive mood can also introduce a proposition or suggestion:
We suggest that the driver stay behind.
The assistant coach suggested that Mikel play the penalty.
Answers to last week’s assignment
They gave the book to John and … (a) I (b) they (c)
me (d) she.
I guess the secret is between the woman and … (a)
they (b) them (c) she (d) I.
The workers want … (a) increased (b) increasement
(c) increment (d) increasing … in salary.
None of the boys … (a) knew (b) know (c) know’s (d)
have known … me.
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