The second sentence below uses the past tense in a conditional, relative clause. Is that incorrect? If so, why is it incorrect?

  1. If I could go back in time, I would be a girl who never leaves her hometown.

  2. If I could go back in time, I would be a girl who never left her hometown.

closed as unclear what you're asking by NVZ, curiousdannii, Helmar, Rory Alsop, Mitch Sep 12 '16 at 16:58

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Welcome to English Language & Usage, a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.This site strives to provide well researched, intriguing questions. Take the site tour or have a look at the help center to find out more about good questions. First and foremost your question lacks any context. Both sentences are grammatical. If they express what you want to express is can't possibly be determined in the complete absence of context. – Helmar Sep 3 '16 at 12:10
  • Thanks to everyone who contributed to answering this question. I am glad to know that both sentences are grammatically correct, because I suspected the second was incorrect. I found @Prester John's answer to be the most clarifying of the meaning: "The first sentence says 'I would be, (in the past), a girl who does not leave', while the second says, 'I would be (today) a girl who did not leave'." Regarding the context Helmar requested, the second sentence is part of an autobiographical paragraph written by a girl who has left her hometown and regrets it. – T. Gillman Sep 6 '16 at 15:00

Both sentences are fine. Both are counterfactual conditional sentences, firmly anchored in the present (and future), and, therefore, in complete conformity with the "second conditional" referenced below. Also, each of the two sentences references, in the relative clause, an imaginary condition or event that is (or would have been) in the past relative to the present time of the main conditional sentence.

The wikipedia entry for "conditional sentence" identifies 5 types of English conditional sentences. In the wikipedia taxonomy, both of the sentences in question are examples of “second conditional”, “…the pattern where the condition clause is in the past tense, and the consequence in conditional mood (using would or, in the first person and rarely, should).” The entry proceeds to observe, “This is used for hypothetical, counterfactual situations in a present or future time frame.”

The specific meaning of the condition clause, "If I could go back in time", offers opportunities for confusion about the time setting of the consequence clause. This is a result of the fact that the conditional clause references a "past" in a way that analogous "second conditionals" (as, "If I could fly...") do not. (My initial response to the question took full advantage of those opportunities.) On closer examination, however, the consequence clause reveals itself to be likewise firmly anchored in the present (or future).

The present tense in the relative clause of the first sentence is the historical present, used for historical or fictional narratives and therefore either in the past or fictional. The second sentence uses the simple past tense. Perhaps there is a subtle difference between "she never leaves" and "she never left", but the meanings are very close if not completely convergent. The question, as posed, seems to imply that the first sentence is obviously correct, but wonders whether the second is not suspect. Because of its use of the historical present, the first sentence would seem to be, in fact, the less colloquial of the two variants.

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