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Assume you're one of the judges in a talent show, and a painter paints in the show. You now have to comment:

What you painted is/was great!

Why should I use "is" when he already painted? And why "was" when his painting is still great?

What you've painted is/was great!

How about if we make it perfect present tense?

What should I use in these two cases?

  • If the context is that the painting no longer exists (and/or you've changed your opinion about it), you pretty much have to use past tense was great. Otherwise it really depends on whether you want to focus on the past activity (painting it) or the present/enduring outcome (the artwork itself). Using Present Perfect (you have painted) effectively combines both of those nuances (it would be very unusual to follow PrP with past tense was great; in that context you'd always use is great). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Sep 29 '17 at 16:07
  • @FumbleFingers: You should really write that up as an answer, rather than leaving something potentially helpful in comment limbo. – Nathan Tuggy Sep 30 '17 at 4:14
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All are possible.

"Was" feels more natural to me, unless the painting is actually here before the judge as they speak, in which case they might use "is".

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  • Why should I use "is" when he has already painted?

Because the "is" has nothing to do with the tense of "to paint".  That verb has its own tense.  The "is" has to do with the present-tense state of the object of "to paint", whatever that may be.

 

  • Why should I use "was" when is painting is still great?

You shouldn't.  Well, that is, you shouldn't unless you can find a good reason:

What you painted last year was great. What you're painting this year is phenomenal.

It's always possible (even if often unlikely) that the past-tense state is what's relevant even when that same state persists in the present.  That it was great implies that it is no longer great, but the right context can easily push that implication aside.

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