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Are the following sentences correct?

We don't know how the word was used in the 13th century, unless we could go back in time.

We don't know how the word was used in the 13th century, unless we went back in time.

Clearly, going back in time is currently an impossibility, so "unless we go back in time" doesn't seem correct. ESL grammar books haven't discussed the hypothetical (counterfactual) use of "unless" and this hypothetical use with a factual main clause.

I'd appreciate your help.

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    I might express that by "We can't know how the word was used in the 13th century, unless we go back in time." Dec 10 '20 at 7:22
  • But going back in time is counterfactual; shouldn't that be expressed in the conditional?
    – Apollyon
    Dec 10 '20 at 7:37
  • You could say "Unless we could go back in time, we couldn't know...", but with "can't", I think it works with "unless we go..." Dec 10 '20 at 7:45
  • The problem with "we couldn't know" is it's not expressed as a fact. It is a fact that we can't know how the word was used in the 13th century. But if we try to match "we can't know" with "unless we go," we will notice that the latter is actually an impossibility, and thus should not be in the indicative. How do we resolve the dilemma?
    – Apollyon
    Dec 10 '20 at 8:14
  • It's the same as "unless the impossible happens", which has no problems of grammar or meaning. Dec 10 '20 at 8:34
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Having the ability to go back does not equate to doing so. So the ability alone does not let us know what word was used in that century. To find the word we have to go back. So your first sentence fails. And if we go back, we clearly have the ability to go back, so your second sentence includes the possibility that we could go back - that we have the ability to do so. Your second sentence succeeds.

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  • But even the said ability is an impossibility.
    – Apollyon
    Dec 10 '20 at 8:35
  • @Apollyon, In practice yes, but this is not about reality; it is about the use of language within an imagined circumstance. Reality does not matter in this case. We are not invited to discuss whether time travel is possible or not.
    – Anton
    Dec 10 '20 at 10:03
  • Reality does matter in the discussion of language. That's why irrealis and counterfactuality are all about.
    – Apollyon
    Dec 10 '20 at 13:27
  • @Apollyon Have you never read any fiction?
    – Anton
    Dec 10 '20 at 13:33
  • Fiction presents non-realty as if it were reality in order to look real. That's different from the case in hand.
    – Apollyon
    Dec 10 '20 at 13:37
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This would sound more natural to me:

We can't know how the word was used in the 13th century, unless we go back in time.

To say that you don't know something unless you do something is less successful than saying that you cannot know unless you do something. And I think go should be in the present as the verb in the main clause is in the present. However went is not wrong either, and it does put an emphasis on the fact that it is highly unlikely that we will go back. However, one must be careful with emphasis, it can distract the attention of the reader from one's main point. To my mind a sentence like

We don't know how the word was used in the 13th century, unless we went back in time.

is very ok, but just for a second there my mind lingered on went, when the main meaning seems to be contained in the first clause. Unless your intent is to focus on the fact that we cannot go to the past, I think it is alright to put go instead of went.

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