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This is from Wikipedia:

Gilligan's Island is an American sitcom created and produced by Sherwood Schwartz. The show had an ensemble cast that featured Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr., Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Tina Louise, Russell Johnson, and Dawn Wells. It aired for three seasons on the CBS network from September 26, 1964, to April 17, 1967. The series followed the comic adventures of seven castaways as they attempted to survive on an island on which they had been shipwrecked.

As you can see, first sentence says Gilligan's Island is an American sitcom. Then it goes to past tense, and says "had" ensemble cast and "followed" comic adventures.

How do we decide when to use past or present tense? It seems strange to me to do it like this: in my own language, I would always use present tense even if the object is in the past. So I would say

Gilligans Island IS an American Sitcom. The show HAS an ensemble cast. The series FOLLOWS the comic adventures ….

I would do this even for dead people. E.g, Wikipedia page on Genghis Khan says he WAS the founder and first Khan of the Mongol empire. I would say in my language he IS the founder and first Khan of the Mongol Empire. Him being dead, doesn't mean him founding the Mongol empire is no longer true.

Similarly, just because Gilligan's Island is over, doesn't mean the show itself doesn't have an ensemble cast or follows their comic adventures... all those things are TRUE even TODAY, even though they are in the PAST. Hence we should use present tense.

So I'm kinda confused about how this works.

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    Interesting question. I would never use is of a person who is no longer alive (unless they feature in a fictional story). Jane Austen was an English novelist; Pride and Prejudice is her most popular novel, and Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine. But I can see why they used the past tense for describing an old TV series. Nov 18 '20 at 9:17
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Gilligan's Island, unlike Genghis Khan, still exists: you cannot share a beer with a dead warlord, but you can still watch the show.

Whether it stars or starred Bob Denver depends on what the verb means: does it mean that he is seen in a prominent role (present), or that he participated prominently (past)?

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Gilligan's Island is no longer on television. It is a show from the past. To discuss it we will use past tense. *It was on in the 1960s. It starred Bob Denver etc.

The confusion comes from the very first sentence, Gilligan's Island is an American sitcom. The usage can best be explained by asking someone, Is Gilligan's Island an American sitcom? You will get different answers, many with qualifiers like It's not a currently aired American sitcom.

Is Gilligan's Island an American sitcom or was Gilligan's Island an American sitcom? When GI stopped creating new shows, did it stop being an American sitcom? If it did then it was a sitcom. If it did not then it is a sitcom. The answer is yes, it is and yes, it was.

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  • "It starred Bob Denver". If I read this, my immediate thought is "What happened to Bob Denver, and who does it star now"? That's why it seems better to say "It stars Bob Denver", since that implies it stars Bob Denver throughout its run. Saying "It starred Bob Denver", is confusing, since it has a double-meaning: it could also mean that Bob Denver starred in like, the first season, but then got replaced by somebody else.
    – Forma
    Nov 17 '20 at 20:52
  • @Forma No. All discussion would use past tense. You would not use present tense to discuss things in the past. Your concern only exists in the very first sentence, Gilligan's Island is an American sitcom. That is the only part of the entire phrase that may use the present tense. The issue arises from the peculiar statuses of things like TV shows. No one has agreed on whether GI is or was an American sitcom. We do agree, however, that things in the past are not discussed using present tense.
    – EllieK
    Nov 18 '20 at 13:22
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As a native US English speaker, when I read your example for Gilligan's Island using the present tense, it sounds to me like it's describing a show that is currently on air. In this example, using the past tense makes it clear that it's talking about a show that is no longer running.

I don't think the present-tense example is necessarily wrong; it's just a style difference. But to me the past vs. present descriptions definitely convey two different meanings.

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    Yes, but if you want to make that clear it is as easy as saying "Gilligan's Island is an American sitcom which aired from xxxx to yyyy". Problem solved? Likewise, "Ghengis Khas is the founder of the Mongul Empire and its First Khan, which he ruled until his death in xxxx".
    – Forma
    Nov 17 '20 at 20:54
  • Answer the question, "Is Gilligan's Island an American sitcom?" The answer is yes. Is it a sitcom? Yes. Is it American? Yes. Ergo GI is an American sitcom. If you would like a no for the answer, you must ask a different question.
    – EllieK
    Nov 18 '20 at 13:27
  • I'd actually say it's debatable with respect to the TV show, but Genghis Khan was the founder of the Mongol Empire. We would never refer to Genghis Khan in the present tense, not even if his empire had survived to the present day. Nov 20 '20 at 4:30
  • @the-baby-is-you - Oh really? Generally when someone declares something to be debatable they supply the beginnings of that debate.
    – EllieK
    Nov 30 '20 at 14:53
  • @the-baby-is-you G. Khan is the founder of the Mongol Empire. He founded the Mongol Empire ergo he is the founder. If he was the founder, then who is now the founder? There is no founder? Was the Empire not founded? When you are speaking of the life of a dead person their existence/life is referred to using past tense. Their still standing accomplishments, including empire founding, use the present tense since they still stand. For many years Americans could say Babe Ruth holds the record for most home runs, even though he had been dead for years.
    – EllieK
    Nov 30 '20 at 16:35

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