See this conversation

A: I saw a girl

B: was she beautiful? (or is she beautiful?)

A: My mom gave me a pen.

B: was it nice? (or is it nice?)

So, which responses are ok or idiomatic?

  • Both past and present are idiomatic depending on what you mean. – Robusto Mar 28 '17 at 4:22
  • Was it nice? Sounds a bit like he's asking whether it was nice of her to give it you? But that's absolutely not the case. – SovereignSun Mar 28 '17 at 7:18
  • English is not devoid of common sense. The sighting of the girl was fleeting; it happened once in the past ("saw"). We would not ask What color hair does she have? unless we see the speaker is in a reverie. The pen is a gift and you have probably not thrown it in the trash. We presume you still have it, absent information to the contrary, and so we would not ask Did it write smoothly? unless we thought this was a pen you no longer have. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Mar 28 '17 at 11:00

All of your responses are correct and idiomatic, but they would have different understandings.

Just because the initial statement is past tense, the follow up question say be either in the past or present tense depending on the context.

I saw a girl yesterday.
Is she beautiful?
Was she beautiful?

are both correct, is is possible since on would not think her looks have changed much over the course of a day. However,

I remember I saw a girl ten years ago.

Is she beautiful?

may not be appropriate since many things can change over ten years

Was she beautiful.

would still be correct.

  • 1
    So, "was" is the safest way to say it, right? – Tom Mar 28 '17 at 6:36
  • @Tom Take that example of yours: My mom gave me a pen. Was it nice? - did something to happen to it since the time she gave you. How much time passed since then? Is it nice? - you still have it? Do you like it? – SovereignSun Mar 28 '17 at 7:17

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