Grammar Usage

Has the subjunctive gone nuclear?

Q: In an ICAN appeal to world leaders some time ago, Bishop Tutu said, “It’s time we retired nuclear weapons.” If “retired” is replaced with “retire,” will the sentence still be subjunctive?

A: First of all, we don’t believe that a sentence beginning “It is time” (or “It’s time”) requires the subjunctive mood.

In our opinion, the clause following “It’s time” is generally in the indicative mood, with the verb in a past tense (“It is time he went” or “It’s time he was going”).

Here, we’re using a past tense imaginatively to speak of a future action. However, it’s not unusual to find the present tense used instead (“It is time he goes”).

Some grammarians would classify these sentences as subjunctive, since they refer to an action that’s remote and unrealized. But we don’t agree with this interpretation.

Of course, a subjunctive construction is possible: “It is time that he go” … “It is time that he be gone” … “It’s time he were going.” And such usages were more common in the past. But today they’d be seen mainly in very formal or literary English.

But let’s get back to that sentence by Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Cape Town, promoting the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Both his version (“It’s time we retired nuclear weapons”) and the present-tense version (“It’s time we retire nuclear weapons”) are natural, idiomatic English. And as we see it, both are in the indicative mood, not the subjunctive.

We’ve had several blog items about the subjunctive. In our most recent posting, we say it’s called for in modern English in the following cases (we’ll use something like your sentence in the examples, but with a singular subject to make the subjunctive usage more apparent).

(1) When expressing a wish: “I wish the nuclear arsenal were retired.” (In the subjunctive, “was” becomes “were.”)

(2) When making an “if” statement about a condition that’s contrary to fact: “If the nuclear arsenal were retired, we’d be safer. ” (Ditto.)

(3) When something is being asked, demanded, ordered, suggested, and so on: “We demand that the government retire the nuclear arsenal.” (In these cases, the verb in the second clause is always in the infinitive, as in “I suggest she walk,” “They ordered that he be jailed,” etc.)

Check out our books about the English language