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Stay hungry Stay foolish That [is/was] what Steve Jobs said on a commencement speech.

Which is proper? Is or Was? Or both?

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Both may be correct, depending on what nuance you want to add to the statement.

Even if you quote something someone said in the past, or the person who has made the quote has died, it is acceptable to use the simple present to suggest the quote is still relevant to the present moment. For example:

"To be or not to be" is the most famous, and most quoted) line from Shakespeare's most famous play "Hamlet".

However, it's also fine to use the simple past if you want to focus on circumstances around a past event:

"To be or not to be" was what Shakespeare wrote in his most well-known play "Hamlet", never knowing it would become his most quoted line.

So if you want to suggest the quote is eternally valid and insightful, use the present tense. If you want to focus on what happened during the speech, use the past tense.

You might also find my answer here helpful.

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  • "Steve jobs is/was genius because he pioneered in new areas." In this case, IS/ARE all acceptable with the same reason you mentioned above? Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 23:32
  • @yoonjinkim No. In this case you're talking about a person who is dead, so use the past tense You can use the present tense to talk about Steve Jobs' work, or his discoveries, or his published philosophies, or his speeches, or anything that still exists today -- but not Steve Jobs himself.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 23:35
  • @yoonjinkim That being said, you can use the present tense if you are talking about him in relation to something current, for example: Steve Jobs is one of the pioneer geniuses of modern computing. In this case we're talking about some metaphorical list of geniuses, which is ongoing. However, while this statement is natural, it may be confusing to people who aren't aware Steve Jobs is dead.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 23:37
  • "Steve jobs is/was one of the best engineers ever " In this case, both are okay? Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 23:45
  • @yoonjinkim It's possible to use the present tense, but it's a little weird, because Steve Jobs is deceased. It's better to use the past tense, Steve jobs was one of the best engineers ever.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 23:49

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