When my friend is sending me a wallet, I want to know what it’s made of, which should I say:

What was it made of?


What is it made of?

If I ask my friend about the wallet, I should use is or was? Which is right?


The ambiguity in tense comes down to the multiple senses of the verb made.

Here are two questions we might ask, the first in the past tense and the second in the present tense:

What was it manufactured from?
What is it composed of?

The word made can have both of these senses: to be manufactured and to be composed of. Note, too, the different prepositions—which also serve to indicate the particular meaning.

Depending on the meaning you are assigning to it, either of the tenses could be correct.

Having said that, in this case, it's more common to be asking about the material that currently comprises it rather than asking about the process that was used when it was actually constructed.

Because of this, it's the present tense that would more often (but not necessarily always) be used.


In this case, the better option is What is it made of?

I understand your confusion, and I don't have a great answer for why it is this way. I guess that "made of" is an idiom used to describe what something consists of, but not necessarily considering the original process used to make it.

Both are grammatically correct, but using was has a different meaning and would be used in other situations:

  • If they had the item in the past, but no longer have it: Oh, no! You lost the wallet? What was it made of?

  • If you are talking about the previous condition of the item and how it is different now: This wallet was made of unblemished leather, but it is now in very poor condition.

  • Describing the original materials used to make the item (e.g., in the factory). This would usually be made from instead of made of, but either could work: Those wallets were all made from the same batch of leather.

  • In the last case, can I say, ‘Those wallets are all made from the same batch of leather.’? – Y. zeng Apr 5 '19 at 12:49
  • @Y.zeng - Yes, that would be fine too, with a very similar meaning. I probably should not have changed the topic from "made of" to "made from", since they probably follow different rules. – Justin Apr 5 '19 at 12:53
  • Here's a site about the difference between made from/of/with. Unfortunately, it doesn't talk about past vs. present tense. – Justin Apr 5 '19 at 12:55

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