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I was listening to the radio today and the presenter, talking about a presidential candidate, asked a guest "If he became president, what would that mean to ..."

It seems to me that the verb to become is incorrectly conjugated in this particular instance, but I can't quite pinpoint the reason why.

I know I'd say something like ...

"If he becomes president" or .. "If he were to become president"

But I'd never use the conjugate the verb in the past when it's an something that might still come to pass.

Can someone explain whether the first instance is correct and the reason why it is either correct or incorrect?

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"If he became president, what would that mean to ..."

The ideas could be expressed in a number of ways. It is acceptable as is.
The first phrase is a conditional clause and the second represents the results, if the condition is met, in the form of an inquiry. The condition can be in the past, as the results cannot occur until the condition is met.

If he becomes president....

If the condition is in the present, then the inquiry in this case should be:

what will that mean...?

If the condition is met in the present, then the results need to be beyond the present (the future).
In older common usage the wording might have been:

Should he become president, what would that mean...?

But such usage is rare today.

But I'd never use the conjugate the verb in the past when it's an something that might still come to pass.

It would be the order of events that determine tense, as a general rule, if a conditional is used,and, a situation counter to fact is created. "If he became president" suggests he "could have" become president, but clearly means he is not president. It also means that if he were president, he became president before the present. That is OK, as the results of his being president cannot be until he is president. But, whether he "became" or becomes" this has not occurred, so the results are in a future time. Whether one starts in the past and goes forward, or begins now and goes forward, the relative time is correct. The use of a conditional suspends fact and time becomes relative, not factual.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Feb 18 '17 at 16:31
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If he became president, what would that mean to ...

is grammatical (correct). It uses the past tense in the if-clause (protasis) and the would+infinitive construction in the main clause (apodosis).

This kind of complex sentence is often referred to as the Second Conditional or Conditional Type 2 in English language pedagogy. The corresponding First Conditional sentence is:

If he becomes president, what will that mean to ...

in which the present tense is used in the protasis and the will+infinitive construction in the apodosis.

Since both of these constructions are grammatical, the choice between them is one of semantics. Swan, in Practical English Usage (p258), explains the difference as follows:

The difference between, for example, if I come and if I came is not necessarily a difference of time. They can both refer to the future, but the past tense suggests that a future situation is impossible, imaginary or less probable. Compare:

  • If I become President, I'll ... (said by a candidate in an election)
  • If I became President, I'd ... (said by a schoolboy)

In the OP's example, the presenter's use of the past tense (If he became ...) can be interpreted as conveying a certain doubt that this will happen. Or it may be an attempt to maintain neutrality.

Wikipedia has a good article on English conditional sentences.

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