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I posted this question on English Learner Stack, too, but I didn't get an official answer(maybe it is because my question is kind of a complex one.)

This question is relative to a topic I posted last time: https://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/149420/tense-usage-in-an-imaginary-discussion

This time, I have some questions about "what if an imaginary situation is something mixing up different times" I believe many learners have the same question in mind, so I decided to post it.


Example 1,

(using present tense to talk about an imaginary situation happening now)

I am talking to my friend about an imaginary situation:

What I say to my friend:

You are walking on the streets. You meet a beautiful woman that you saw yesterday.

Because you went to a coffee shop and saw her sitting beside the window the previous day.

(back to the imaginary present)

Then, You guys chat and have a good time. It seems like she is your right one. Will you ask for her number?

Example 2

(using past tense to talk about an imaginary situation happening now, because I think, this way , I can let others know that all I talk about is something imaginary in a more clear way. And I use past perfect in this example to indicate something happening in the past of the imaginary situation. I don't know if it is ok to use it like that.)

I am talking to my friend about an imaginary situation

What I say to my friend:

You were walking on the streets. You met a beautiful woman that you had seen yesterday.

Because you had been to a coffee shop and had seen her sitting beside the window the previous day.

(back to the imaginary present)

OK, then, You guys chatted and had a good time. It seemed like she was your right one. Would you ask for her number?

Can I mix tenses like the above examples when I talk or write an imaginary situation?

PS: By the way, since talking about the plot of a book, movie, or video can mix tenses like this to convey a better picture of what the plot is about, I think talking about something imaginary probably follows the same rules.

  • Hello, vincentlin. The mixture of tenses in the first example doesn't seem unacceptable in itself, but one should beware of confusing the reader by demanding too much interpretation – having to decide on historic/dramatic usages. Like having to unravel multiple flash-backs in films. But in the second example (where I can't find a subjunctive anywhere), you're just describing a fictional situation set in the past (until the last sentence). Expecting 'yesterday' to be transferrable to a past perfect construction is not acceptable. You need 'the day before'. But the last sentence needs to be ... – Edwin Ashworth Feb 26 '18 at 16:53
  • in a corresponding tense: [paragraph] If this had actually happened to you, would you have asked for her number? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 26 '18 at 16:56
  • Thank you for your reply. Sorry about the past subjunctive thing. I mean whether I can use past tense to talk about an fictional and imaginary situation or scenario happening now? (Because I think it is more clear for others to understand that it is not real). And if it can be written that way, I think something "more-past" or something happening earlier should be in past perfect so that it is instinct from other past tense verbs. What do you think?(I edited my questions to make my idea more clear. If you have time, you might want to check that out) Thank you again!!! – vincentlin Feb 26 '18 at 18:16
  • What makes you think the imaginary element makes any difference, please? Either way it seems to me "Because…" spoils everything and the real problem isn't the tenses, but that using "the previous day" so shortly after "yesterday" creates a doubt about how many times you saw or met here, and on which day… – Robbie Goodwin Mar 7 '18 at 0:19
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It's hard to give an answer that is solely about the verb tenses, because most of the expressions are not idiomatic English.

The present tense is commonly used for imaginary scenarios. The past tense would be used for trying to piece together a scenario that has actually happened.

(Changes in italics)

You are walking down the street. You meet a beautiful woman who you had seen the day before (or the previous day) when you were at a coffee shop. You had seen her sitting beside the window.

(back to the imaginary present)

You guys chat and have a good time. It feels like she is the one. Do you ask for her number?

But how do you meet someone when you're walking down the street? Surely you have to stop and introduce yourself first. Which is just creepy, btw.

Despite the unpleasant creepiness, I will break it down:

You see a beautiful woman who you had seen sitting by the window of a cafe the day before. You catch her eye and she smiles at you. You smile back and you say hello and introduce yourself.

Or more likely:

You see a beautiful woman who you had seen sitting by the window of a cafe the day before. You try to catch her eye. She ignores you and keeps on walking, feeling irritated and harassed.

If you want to put the whole thing in the past tense then:

You were walking down the street. You met a beautiful woman who you had seen the day before when you had been at a coffee shop. She had been sitting beside the window.

(back to the imaginary present)

You chatted and had a good time. It felt like she was the one. Did you ask for her number?

But seriously, don't go accosting women you don't know on the streets.

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Yes, if your scenario includes a reference to an earlier incident it is perfectly acceptable to use two different tenses.

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