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After studying for three years they were considered proficient in their respective subjects, and the time came to say good-bye to their professor.

In the sentence, is 'the time came to say good-bye' an idiom? And can I use 'was' instead of 'came'?

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    We often use spatial metaphors when talking about time, and we often include the notion of traveling or arriving in such usages: The time came to do X, Christmas Day came and went, My teenage years are long gone. – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '16 at 17:48
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is 'the time came to say good-bye' an idiom?

Yes. It has the literal meaning: it came a time for them to say "goodbye" to their professor.

It has the figurative meaning: it came a time for them to stop being the professor's pupils. They still could communicate with the professor, but not as his pupils or students. Nowadays, you can be in constant contact by email or Skype, so it's never a complete "goodbye".

As for your second query, I googled for "and the time was to say" (with the quotation marks, in order to find exact matches) and found zero results.

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That’s not a spatial metaphor; quite the reverse. If that kind of talk about time was a spacial metaphor, it would be derived from “the place came” which it won’t, because places don’t.

Neither is it an idiom; it’s a statement of fact. It might be a mistaken statement, but that’s nothing to do with grammar or syntax. An idiom breaks the generally acknowledged rules yet is not only recognised but regularly used by at least a large proportion of the population.

We can tell it’s not an idiom because it has the literal meaning: ‘a time came to say "goodbye”’… which is as correct as “it came a time” is not. “It came time” or “there came a time” or “the time came” but never “it came a time”

The implication that there came a time to stop being the professor's pupils is by no means figurative; it’s as close to literal as an extrapolation can be.

If Skype, why not a TARDIS?

“The time was to say…” doesn’t work as a corollary of the correct forms being either “it was time…” or “it was the time…”. We can’t have everything.

If we used temporal metaphors, the least likely equivalent would rightly be “the place was to stay” and the main options “it was place…” or “it was the place…” though it would be possible to say something like: “After they installed the irrigation system, the place was to stay habitable for 300 years.”

“It was place, not time or distance, that seemed strange…” is even less likely than “It was the place, not the time or distance, that made the scene unusual…” while “it was the place to stay” concerns street cred, not location.

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