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Is “Last year is 2016” correct?

I wonder whether to use the past or present tense here.

Another example: "1980 is the year I was born" or "1980 was the year I was born."

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"Last year", when it refers to the year that just passed, as passed, takes the past tense, was.

Last year was a banner year for Acme Widgets.

But if you're looking at a chart, say, and are referring to a data-point on the chart that represents data from last year, it is common to refer to that data as "last year", and then you could say something like:

As the chart shows, last year is truly an aberration.

But in that case, you're not using the phrase last year to refer to the year that just passed, but merely as a convenient label for something else, even if it bears some relation to the year that just passed, and you're referring to the chart in front of you.

P.S. If the year is included in some present context we can use is:

As you can see, last year is a banner year.

But absent such present context we would not say:

Last year is a banner year for Acme Widgets. unidiomatic without a context

  • Clear and concise! Couldn't I also say "considering our company's progress over the last decade, last year is the year of maximum financial growth" or "last year is special for so many reasons"? – English Student Dec 29 '17 at 21:00
  • In your first case, you're referring not to the year itself, but to the progress made last year. That scenario is thus analogous to my chart example, in which "last year" is merely a shorthand reference for something other than the year which bears some relation to the year. As for your second example, again I think it is semantically analogous to the chart example I gave ("Last year is truly an aberration"); you're referring to a number of things that took place during the year or characteristics of the year. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 29 '17 at 22:03
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    In short, whenever 'last year' means ' the past year' we must use the past tense. Thanks for confirming and this is what I have now in my own answer (most recent edit.) – English Student Dec 30 '17 at 0:04
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    @Dan: Statements of general fact are stated in the present: "Birds make nests." But unless we are using the historical present for some rhetorical effect, we don't say "The English are defeated by the Normans in 1066." Rather, if we are making a statement (factual or not) about a discrete event in the past, we normally use the past. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 30 '17 at 10:58
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    @Dan: You can express it either way; you can refer to 1980 using the present is, and thereby refer to the year in terms of its present contextual relevance; or you can refer to 1980 using the past was, and thereby refer to the year in terms of its place in time. Language is expressive. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 30 '17 at 11:54
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Whenever 'last year' means 'the past year', the past tense "was" should be used, as in this particular case:

Last year was 2016.

According to Google Ngrams which statistically quantifies and can compare the frequency of usage of particular expressions or constructions, "last year was" has always been (and remains) much more popular than "last year is" which has hardly been used over the last 200 years, especially when 'last' is capitalized which indicates that 'last year was/is' comes at the start of a sentence:

enter image description here

Source page: Ngram for "Last year was" vs "Last year is"

Examples where "last year is" sounds appropriate:

considering our company's progress over the last decade, last year is the year of maximum financial growth.

Last year is special for so many reasons!

Note that "last year was" would be equally grammatical in both cases, but the "fine shade of meaning" might change a little, depending on the context.


On the other hand, any specific past year such as 1980 is not always interpreted as 'the past year 1980' and can also be understood as 'the specific year 1980', so 'is' may be found used somewhat more often than with "last year", although 'was' is still found more commonly used, as shown by Ngrams:

enter image description here

Source page: "Ngram for "1980 was" vs "1980 is"

Other examples for using a particular year with a verb in the present tense:

2016 is over // 2016 is done and dusted.

2016 remains a landmark year for the global economy.

1943 is remembered as the year the tide of the War began to turn in the Allies' favor.

1776 is historic // is important in history because...

1776 is the year that the American Revolution began.

1776 represents a historic change in our politics.

Note too that

"1960 is the year I was born"

might be technically correct but native speakers of English are more likely to say

"I was born in 1960."

Example:

Friend:""So what is so special about 1960?"

Non native speaker: "1960 is the year I was born."

Native speaker: "I was born in 1960."

I am not a native speaker myself and would be very interested to know native speakers' views; also willing to be corrected in this matter!

  • I bet if you changed 1980 with 1984 you"d get a whole different picture. 😜 books.google.com/ngrams/… – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '17 at 10:06
  • My comment was tongue in cheek, "1984" is the title of a book by George Orwell, only it is written as a word "nineteen eighty-four" not a number. P.S. I would be very surprised if someone in the 1800s ever mentioned 1980 using the past tense :) – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '17 at 10:18
  • There's nothing intriguing about "last year is 2016" except for the fact it is unidiomatic and wrong. Last year will always refer to the past. Did you check the results for "last year is" – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '17 at 10:21
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    You must look at the results at the bottom of the graph, many are referring to facts and figures while the small proportion of respondents who have arranged a personal pension plan in the last year is not surprising The instances are mostly referring to statistics, not to the previous calendar year. The phrase "last year is 2016" is just not acceptable. – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '17 at 10:36
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    No. Because we have seen that "last year is", when referring to statistics or data of some sort, is acceptable. It's the phrase "last year is 2016" that is wholly wrong but that's my view. If you can find an exception then I'd post that example. – Mari-Lou A Dec 29 '17 at 10:51
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I'm very interested in this question. I try to put an answer here, but I am not sure if I am right. So feel free to downvote and add any comments. My intention is to get it clear.

First, after talking with Tᴚoɯɐuo, it should be 'last year was 2016'.

Second, both XXxX is the year I was born... and XXxX was the year I was born... can be correct based on the context. When you put yourself to the past, you should use XXxX was. Putting to the present, then use XXxX is.

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