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Should it be past tense all throughout when writing hypothetical sentences?

If I were to imitate someone who was currently famous, it would be Hugh Laurie.

If I were to imitate someone who is currently famous, it would be Hugh Laurie.

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  • The verb "were" is not in the past tense but the subjunctive. This page discusses it in the section "Subjunctive Mood". – Weather Vane Feb 21 '19 at 20:57
  • So which one of the two sentences would you go for? – Curious lingo Feb 21 '19 at 21:03
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    The second one, unlike the posted answer, because "was" and "currently" do not match. – Weather Vane Feb 21 '19 at 21:04
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    I think the use of is/was is just a matter of fame's emphasis, whether it still exists or has faded away, and it's not to do with the rest of the sentence. In other words, it can be treated as an additional information, and a pair of commas should set off the relative clause. – Lucian Sava Feb 21 '19 at 22:16
  • I would choose neither version. Simply use: If I were to use someone currently famous, it would be Hugh Laurie. Drop the who was / who is out of the sentence completely. It's not needed anyway, and seems to only cause confusion. – Jason Bassford Feb 22 '19 at 16:57
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Most hypothetical situations are in the future tense because they concern something you might do; however, they might involve certain hypothetical conditions also. For example:

If you were a dog, would you enjoy running for a stick?

In this hypothetical question, there is a given that you are already a dog; however, the question is about something you might, or might not do under those conditions. That is not in the past tense, because it is asking what you would do, not what you did. Of course, the chances of you become a dog are zero, but many hypothetical questions are about real situations - things that could happen. Hypothetical statements about the future can be things you might actually do; whereas hypothetical situations about the past are always unreal situations.

In your examples, "if I were to" is future conditional tense. You are talking about the possibility of doing something in the future. Whether you use "is famous" or "was famous" depends on how far into the future you are hypothesising about. You can't be sure that someone who is famous today will be famous in the far future.

If you are talking about the near future then, by all means, use "is" because you are speaking about people who are presently famous, but if you are talking about a hypothetical future, it that context use "was" as this is a form of the subjunctive mood in the same way as "were" is used in the first part of the sentence.

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  • The state of being famous is present and has nothing to do with the future, although the action (interview) is set to happen in the future (hypothetically) – Curious lingo Feb 21 '19 at 21:06
  • @Curiouslingo If you make something conditional by saying "if" then you are talking about the future. If you are talking about the immediate future, ie what you are about to do, then by all means use "is". – Astralbee Feb 21 '19 at 21:15

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