I would like to make a statement about two people. One of them is dead:

He and his wife {are/were} great scientists.

Are probably indicates that both of them are still alive. Were indicates both are dead or at least are not great scientists anymore. If that is correct, will rewording be better? For example,

He was a great scientist as his wife still is.

  • There's a case for using are. If you consider 'great scientists' in the case of a famous scientist (Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, etc.) rather than just a scientist who was good at his job then you might use the present tense ("Albert Einstein is one of the great scientists of the 20th century"). This is because, despite being dead, they are still a great scientist. – Omegastick Jul 13 '18 at 7:22
  • @Omegastick Really? Going to have to disagree. I can't find any reference to Albert Einstein saying that his is a great scientist. Lots of ones about how he was a great scientist... In fact, I can't find any reference to any dead person that talks about them in the present tense. – Steve Ives Jul 13 '18 at 10:49
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    Consider the following sentence: "Albert Einstein is the greatest scientist of all time." Saying "Albert Einstein was the greatest scientist of all time" sounds like he has since been surpassed by other scientists. The same applies here IMO. "He was a great scientist" sounds like he is no longer considered 'great'. It's definitely unintuitive though, and I think most native speakers would default to -was. – Omegastick Jul 13 '18 at 11:03
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    @Omegastick In general, I feel it's most common to decouple the person from their work. "Einstein was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th centuary. His work is some of the most influential on our current understanding of physics." – user68033 Jul 13 '18 at 11:10
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    Don't forget the Finkbeiner test. – gerrit Jul 13 '18 at 11:33

If you can, start with the living:

Carol Smith is a great scientist as was her late husband, Bob Smith

If not, try something like this instead:

Bob Smith, until his untimely death (2012), was an astounding scientist as is his surviving spouse, Carol Smith.

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    I love the "is"/"as was" dynamic you've suggested here. It subtly emphasizes the living person (which is generally acceptable in most circumstances) but still respects the dead's accomplishments; using the "late" adjective is a nice, concise way to express that the second person is deceased, without saying "who died", "is dead", or other more cumbersome multi-word descriptions. – Doktor J Jul 12 '18 at 16:59
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    +1 for using the idiomatic late and surviving spouse. But not for the second sentence. That strikes me as rather awkward. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 12 '18 at 17:39
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    Yeah the second one isn't great; it makes it sound like his surviving spouse also had an untimely death in 2012. – fluffy Jul 13 '18 at 0:42
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    I've moved the time reference closer to its antecedent which should be an improvement. – Mari-Lou A Jul 13 '18 at 8:29
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    @Mari-LouA - Definitely an improvement, although now I wonder if they were in a car accident or something that he died in and she survived. :-) – T.J. Crowder Jul 13 '18 at 8:40

If one of the couple is still alive but the other is not, then it's awkward to just use are or were. Either way would be misleading, and you'd have to follow with some kind of retraction.

Both the Professor and his wife are great scientists, although he died last year.

Both the Professor and his wife were great scientists, although she is still alive.

You see? Awkward.

Instead you ought to rephrase the sentence. One way to do this is to talk about their reputation rather than their existence. It's fine to say what their reputation currently is, even though one or both might be dead.

Both the Professor (who passed away last year) and his wife are considered to be great scientists.

Another way is to avoid the verb entirely and focus instead on their accomplishments:

The Professor and his wife, both great scientists, published their latest groundbreaking research last year, a few short weeks before he died of complications from a long illness.

Unless otherwise stated, we can assume the Professor's wife is still alive.

(Edit) As DonQuiKon's comment points out, you can use the perfect tense considered to have been for past events, but this is more complicated than you might think. The perfect tense implies a relationship between two events in time, and you would not use it unless you wanted to suggest something changed.

For example, suppose you write:

The Professor and his wife are considered to have been great scientists.

This tells us very little. What has changed? Maybe they died? Maybe they are no longer considered great scientists? Without further information, we don't know.

Meanwhile the infinitive works fine for both the living and the dead:

Shakespeare is considered to be the most significant writer of English literature.

The man may have died 400 years ago, but his reputation lives on.

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    “are considered to be“ - or “are considered to have been“? Imho you simply ignored the problem in that example. – DonQuiKong Jul 12 '18 at 17:09
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    @DonQuiKong "Considered to be" is perfectly fine for the living and the dead, "Shakespeare is considered by many to be the most significant writer of English literature." Certainly you can write it considered to have been if you want to make explicit that the situation has changed in some way, but you ought to include what changed. "Shakespeare is considered by many to have been the most significant writer of English literature before Dan Brown came along". – Andrew Jul 12 '18 at 17:24
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    @DonQuiKong Well, no, it's whether a dead person can be considered a great scientist. Still, the actual question doesn't ask about an individual, rather a couple where one is living and one dead. In this case, my point is that you can use the present infinitive to refer to reputation, and avoid the verbs of existence. – Andrew Jul 12 '18 at 18:16
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    @DonQuiKong It's not really a compound of "considered" and "existing". In fact you could remove the "to be" entirely without changing the meaning, e.g. Galileo, Newton, and Curie are considered great scientists. You would use this kind of sentence in situations where it doesn't much matter whether they are alive or dead, because you're going to focus on something like their accomplishments rather than their mortality. – Andrew Jul 12 '18 at 20:29
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    FWIW, the "to be" part of that is completely unnecessary: "Both the Professor (who passed away last year) and his wife are considered great scientists." But I like your "The Professor and his wife, both great scientists, published their latest groundbreaking research last year, a few short weeks before he died of complications from a long illness." although "The Professor and her husband, both great scientists, published their latest groundbreaking research last year, a few short weeks before he died of complications from a long illness." should be considered as well. – T.J. Crowder Jul 13 '18 at 8:36

Both usages of are and were would be wrong without immediate clarification. And even then, it would be awkward to have some but or although added to reinterpret your phrasing.

So instead you may go with two verbs, was+is:

He was a great scientist and so is his wife.

Or rephrase this statement without a verb:

He and his wife, great scientists, ...

  • "He and his wife, great scientists…" fails to make any distinction. Where is the verb? – Mari-Lou A Jul 14 '18 at 6:23
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    @Mari-LouA The verb is up to you: "He and his wife, great scientists, got married in 1979 and are best known for their eponym Foundation." – Cœur Jul 14 '18 at 6:29
  • In your example, …got married in 1979 and are best known… nothing precludes the possibility that one of them has died. – Mari-Lou A Jul 14 '18 at 6:31
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    @Mari-LouA It wasn't required from the question to convey that information: in context (an article, a speech, an epitaph, etc.), the information is likely already available or may be unneeded. – Cœur Jul 14 '18 at 6:34
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    You are mistaken, the whole point of the question is to specify that one of the spouses, both important scientists, is dead. It's in the introduction: I would like to make a statement about two people. One of them is dead: – Mari-Lou A Jul 14 '18 at 6:37

Very good question, this comes up a lot. I'll get to your example in a moment, but it is also worth considering this one:

Example: If a man named John died leaving a son behind,

The son would say: "I am the son of John", because the son is still alive, so he speaks of himself in the present tense.

But he might also say: "John was my father", because the subject of the sentence is his father, and he is dead so he is spoken of in the past tense.

So when you speak of people this way as individuals, it is straightforward - the living in the present, the dead in the past.

Now to your example. It should be:

He and his wife were great scientists.

This is because you have spoken of them both as a couple, and obviously you would correctly say:

He and his wife were a great couple.

.. because they are no longer a couple. Anything they did together as a couple they will no longer do together, so it becomes past tense.

However, while it is correct it does leave some ambiguity - is the living person still a scientist? If they are, you might need to qualify your statement, if it was pertinent.

Perhaps say:

He and his wife were great scientists. She still is.
He was a great scientist. His wife (widow?) still is.

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    Your penultimate sentence hints that 'he' was once a great scientist, but isn't any more. No mention of whether he just stopped being a great scientist, or just stopped living. – Tim Jul 12 '18 at 16:08
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    I disagree regarding "He and his wife were great scientists.": it can't compare to the couple situation, because both of them aren't couple anymore whereas she is still a great scientist. – Cœur Jul 12 '18 at 16:08
  • @Cœur Being a couple is clearly not an individual attribute of either of them, but is something they do jointly. Being scientists is something true of them both individually. English lacks a clear distinction between these two in an "A and B are X" construct. – Monty Harder Jul 12 '18 at 17:41
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    Not if the widow re-married. Penultimate = last but one. The last sentence is correct. Hence my comment. – Tim Jul 13 '18 at 6:23
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    Fair point, except there's no mention of widow, only wife, in the sentence I mentioned. – Tim Jul 13 '18 at 7:51

This depends on what you are trying to say. If you want to recognize the accomplishments of the dead scientist (say, you are speaking at his funeral), then something like this would be appropriate:

Feng Zhou was an accomplished scientist. He was survived by his wife Qiu Zhou, an equally distinguished scientist.

hopefully in more detail. If the focus is on their work, follow Mari-Lou A's advice and put the emphasis on the living:

Lilah Abbas is a great paleoastronomer and her late husband Muhammad Abbas was just as well known in botany.

You have more options if they worked together:

Carol and the late John Smith were a unique partnership in topological oceanography.

  • In a passive construction, the verb would be present if the spouse is still living: Feng Zhou was an accomplished scientist. He is survived by his wife… The verb is performed by the agent ("his wife") In your first and third solutions it would not be a mistake to assume that both scientists were dead. – Mari-Lou A Jul 14 '18 at 6:15

I like all of the other answers and wanted to submit another option.

He, like his wife a great scientist, did blah blah blah

This option lets you quickly describe what he did to become a great scientist while also acknowledging his wife's greatness, both while not implying the wife is dead.

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    Or also "He, a great scientist like his wife, did blah blah blah" – mattdm Jul 13 '18 at 16:29

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