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I was having a conversation with my mom about this one sentence. Which option is grammatically correct?

a) I saw the girl who is standing outside our house

b) I saw the girl who was standing outside our house

We know that she is STILL standing outside our house.

  • Do you want 21st century English or 19th century English? It's (a) for 21st and 22nd century (based on my completely unfounded extrapolation), (b) for 19th century. We're currently still in transition, so both are actually fine. – Peter Shor May 20 '19 at 19:28
  • @PeterShor Do you have a 19th century example of that? I would certainly agree that the present-day form would be (a). – WS2 May 20 '19 at 19:31
  • @Peter Shor - I'm confused xD. Does (a) sound acceptable for English teacher? – user349044 May 20 '19 at 19:35
  • That depends on whether your teacher is teaching you outdated rules or not. – Peter Shor May 20 '19 at 19:36
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    @PeterShor Really? I hear no datedness at all. All I hear is that one is talking about a girl who is currently outside our house and the other who had been but is not any more. – Mitch May 20 '19 at 22:44
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One time you put a comma after "girl", making the relative clause appositive, and one time you didn't use a comma, making the relative clause restrictive. That's confusing. Which is it? Let's consider both possibilities:

a) I saw the girl who is standing outside our house.
b) I saw the girl who was standing outside our house.
c) I saw the girl, who is standing outside our house.
d) I saw the girl, who was standing outside our house.

I think they are all okay, but all mean different things. Since restrictive clauses have information about prior context, while appositive clauses add information not part of the context, we can approximate the meanings this way:

a') A girl is standing outside our house, and I saw the girl.
b') A girl was standing outside our house, and I saw the girl.
c') I saw the girl, and the girl is standing outside our house.
d') I saw the girl, and the girl was standing outside our house.

If we add the information in the question that the girl in question is known to have been standing outside the house previously and is still there, that would make the a) and b) versions equivalent, since the "is" and "was" versions work equally well to identify the person meant. If it is possible that the girl who was standing outside the house and the girl who is there now are different individuals, these are no longer the same.

In a comment above, Peter Shor seems to allude to a rule of older English that forces a mechanical agreement of tenses in older English, which would imply that the "was" of the relative clause could have the sense of a present "is". I don't know about that, but it makes things more interesting.

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Since this is a single sentence, it needs to keep the same tense throughout. You can either do "I see the girl who is standing outside our house" or "I saw the girl who was standing outside our house".

  • What about the scenario where I saw the girl but now cannot (because I'm away from the window) but the girl is still there? In that case, it would be "I saw the girl who is standing outside our house". – KillingTime May 20 '19 at 19:52
  • Thank you, appreciated... It just didn't make much sense to me, since she is still here, because "I saw the girl who was standing ..." sounds like she has gone somewhere. – user349044 May 20 '19 at 20:02
  • @user349044 I'd have something of the opposite reaction, i.e. if I read "I saw the girl who is standing outside our house", I'd waste a fair amount of time trying to figure out the intended meaning of the sentence. – user888379 May 20 '19 at 20:34
  • What about: Did you order the taxi that is standing outside our house? That's a single sentence. Which tense should it have throughout? – Peter Shor May 20 '19 at 20:54
  • Or, to add onto what @PeterShor said, "You were going to give me the money that you had stolen from me, which is causing me great grief because now my children will starve." There are at least four time expressions there, all in a single sentence. – Robusto May 20 '19 at 23:39

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