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If I were the president, I would transform this country into a place that developed high-tech industries.

Even though the "developed" here is in the past tense, it is in a hypothetical sense and is not something really happening in the past.

There is no confusion or ambiguity here.

However, I think this one creates ambiguity:

If I were as hungry as my friend now, I would get the burger he ate.

My question:

Is this sentence ambiguous?

I think it's ambiguous because the ate seems to be able to mean both "eat" in the past and would eat.

My analysis:

Without a clear context, the listener might think I would go buy a burger my friend would buy in this hypothetical situation created by the if-clause.

The listener might also think my friend ate a burger sometime in the past and that I would buy the same one if I were as hungry.

By the way:

Can we use the reduced form to still carry the hypothetical meaning?

If I were the president, I would transform this country into a place developing high-tech industries.

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  • The problem isn't ambiguity. The burger he ate is no longer available. Feb 17 at 5:20
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It's not necessary to backshift the tense of something that's inside a relative clause.

If I were as hungry as my friend now, I would get the burger [that] he ate.

Remember that you are talking about a hypothetical situation, so it's not normal to specify when... the word now is therefore confusing. The sentence as it stands can only relate to the burger that your friend just ate. If you want to talk about the burger that he is eating right now, there's no need to backshift because it's in a relative clause:

If I were as hungry as my friend, I would get the burger [that] he is eating.

Similarly for this sentence:

If I were the president, I would transform this country into a place that develops high-tech industries.

Yes, you could use a participle phrase "developing high-tech industries", but the relative clause is a lot more widely used. This NGram graph shows the relatively common set-phrase "needing no introduction", and even this occurs only half as often as the relative clause version.

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  • Thank you for your answer. You mean the "ate" in the sentence can only mean an actual action in the past? If so, how should we convey the hypothetical action of "eating" done by my friend in a relative clause like that?
    – vincentlin
    Feb 17 at 6:30
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    @vincentlin your friend did not hypothetically eat a burger, he really ate the burger. Hypothetical eating can only occur in the conditional clause, not the relative clause: "He would be sick if he ate the burger that is in front of him"
    – JavaLatte
    Feb 17 at 9:39
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As I don't have the time to expand on this, I made it into a community wiki post.

“If I were as hungry now as my friend, I would eat the same burger that he would [eat]”

This makes it clear that the speaker's friend is not currently eating anything at the moment.

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