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The report said that years ago city planners had planned to build a facility that turns salt water into fresh water, but financial woes made that impossible.

In this sentence should turned be used instead of turns?

marked as duplicate by tchrist, user66974, FumbleFingers, Mitch, Ronan Jul 7 '14 at 10:18

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  • Thank you for your help. I am new to the site so please forgive me for my lack of experience. – hale Jul 5 '14 at 18:39
  • The case posed differs from those discussed in at least the more immediately linked earlier questions, in that the desalinization never actually occurred; and a situation or condition contrary to fact can be an occasion for backshifting verb tense, even apart from the reporting of past statement. – Brian Donovan Jul 5 '14 at 19:18
  • @hale After reviewing the questions and answers, I’m not completely satisfied with their treatment of this topic. I therefore hope that you get a good answer to your question. – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 19:45
  • You might be interested in the topic of backshift. – F.E. Jul 6 '14 at 2:31

I think the only form of the verb that does full justice to both the past-ness of the planning and the non-reality of the desalinization is would have turned. On this construction (would have plus past participle), see this former question.

  • I’m not sure I’m completely following you. Are you only saying that would have turned would sound better, or are you also saying that turns is actually ungrammatical? – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 21:54
  • I think turned works fine, because had planned already indicates that it never happened. (But would have turned works fine, too.) – Peter Shor Jul 5 '14 at 21:55
  • If the condition in the subordinate clause is still true at the time it gets reported, then it is ok to retain the present tense. She told me her brother writes well. It seems to me that if you change writes to either of wrote or would write, then you change the meaning. – tchrist Jul 5 '14 at 22:14
  • @tchrist, the desalinization plant that was never even built does not continue to turn salt water into fresh, never having begun to do so--in which case yes, turns is grammatically quite unsuitable. That the present tense is acceptable where the predication remains true in the present is irrelevant, for the predication in question (that the "facility . . . turns salt water into fresh water") is not and never has been true. – Brian Donovan Jul 8 '14 at 2:50

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