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This answer on Chess Stack Exchange said it’s grammatically incorrect to call someone by their current pronoun in a sentence talking about a hypothetical future scenario when their pronoun would be different:

If Carlsen decides to sex change, does he instantly become the Women's World Chess Champion?

Your question is grammatically wrong. It should read "does she instantly become the Women's World Chess Champion?"

Is there an agreed-upon rule in English about what names and pronouns to use when talking about:

  • Things that happened in the past
  • Things/people as they are now
  • Things that will or might happen in the future

In my experience, the vast majority of people agree that present states override past states in grammar—for instance, most people refer to people who had changed their names by their current names in sentences about past events that mention them. “In 2015, Ben changed his name from Tom to Ben. Before he changed his name, Ben was the best League of Legends player in the world.” The consensus seems to be that present states always take precedence over past states in English. What about present states and future states?

E.g. “Once Tiana Hickinbottom earns her Ph.D in 2 years, Dr. Hickinbottom will…” and “If Biden wins the U.S. 2024 election…” (can this sentence proceed to call him President Biden)?

And does it make a difference how certain the change is—a change that will definitely happen versus a hypothetical? Is it the same or different for different parts of language such as pronouns, titles, person names, organization names, etc.?


Here are some “principles” that can govern the usage of pronouns, titles, person names, organization names in language pertaining to different times:

Present Over Everything Else
This pattern always refers to things/people by what they are right now.

Later Overrides Earlier
If you go by this pattern, you’d always say “she” in sentences like the question about Magnus Carlsen.

Both “Present > Everything” and “Later > Earlier” share the trait that you’d say ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend when you talk about something they did at a time when they were in a relationship with you. Very common.

Concrete Over Hypothetical
This pattern uses present-day labels when talking about hypothetical events and future labels when talking about events that will likely take place in reality.

Always Relative to the Time Being Spoken About
I think this is the least common one. If you go by this pattern, you’d refer to people who’d changed their names by their old names when you mention them in past tense.

Based on the order of the words in the sentence
Don’t know how common this is. If you go by this pattern, the correct pronoun to use in the Magnus Carlsen sentence is different depending on how you order the clauses:

  • If Carlsen decides to sex change, does she instantly become the Women's World Chess Champion?
  • Does Carlsen instantly become the Women's World Chess Champion if he decides to sex change?
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    Note that this is a problem even without considering changes in gender. "If you play a baby music, it will fall asleep faster" is correct. But what about "If you play a baby music, it will be more intelligent at age 20"?
    – alphabet
    Commented Apr 27 at 4:12
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    I agree with @alphabet. Consider how you might use the words groom/bride versus husband/wife in a sentence that refers to the time before or after the marriage takes place.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 29 at 18:56
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    Note also that public acceptance of gender fluidity is still fairly new (and not even close to universal). The proper use of language to refer to transgender people is still in flux. Many people still struggle with the "What's your pronouns?" issue. So it's too soon to make absolute statements about what is grammatical in that sentence.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 29 at 18:59

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