Could you tell what is the difference between be the first to do something and be the first to have done something? For example:

The country is the first to use nuclear power.

The country is the first to have used nuclear power.

1 Answer 1


In context, both probably mean the same thing.

There are many tenses in English. Sometimes there are important differences between them, and sometimes not.

Life if I said, "Bob is in Chicago", that's present tense. He is in Chicago right now (at the time I say it). If I said, "Bob was in Chicago", that's past tense. He was in Chicago at some time in the past. Normally the context would tell you just when. He might still be in Chicago now, he might have left and returned, or he might be somewhere else. Just based on that sentence, you don't know.

But in other cases it doesn't matter. If I say, "Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon", or "Neil Armstrong is the first man to walk on the Moon", both sentences mean the same thing. If he was the first, then he still is the first. Nothing that happens later can make him cease to be the first.

Sometimes it's iffy. Like, "Sally was my youngest sister" versus "Sally is my youngest sister". If she was the youngest at some time in the past, she probably still is the youngest. But not necessarily. Maybe my parents have had another child so Sally isn't the youngest any more.

I'm reminded of a time a politician came to speak at my high school, and the principal introduced him as "a former graduate of Northport High School". When the politician got up to speak, he said, "I thought I still was a graduate." Whether he WAS a graduate or IS a graduate should be the same thing.

  • I'm not sure how strong the implication is, but I think it's fair to say that OP's second (Present Perfect) version is much less likely if it's [still] the only country to have done something. Obviously that's a meaningless distinction with use nuclear power, but if it was something that the audience didn't know much about, I think if you heard It's the first country to have approved an anti-zombie vaccine you might think it's more likely that other countries might have done the same thing later (compared to to approve if they're still the first and only one). Feb 2, 2021 at 17:38
  • Thanks about the helpful comment! I'm a bit confused though. You said "it's fair to say that OP's second (Present Perfect) version is much less likely if it's [still] the only country to have done something", so if say the county is the first one to have approved an anti-zombie vaccine, that would mean that no other other country has approved it yet, right? Feb 2, 2021 at 18:01
  • @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Hmm, "Spain is the first country to use an anti-zombie vaccine" vs "Spain is the first country to have used an anti-zombie vaccine" ... I don't see any difference in connotations. To me, neither statement implies that other countries have or have not used an anti-zombie vaccine.
    – Jay
    Feb 2, 2021 at 19:52
  • @Jay: You may be right. I think I'm being influenced by the fact that the "Perfect Infinitive" (or whatever the tense in the second example is called) seems to nudge me into interpreting the preceding verb as Spain was the first country [to have done it]. If someone is the first, there might be more coming later, but not necessarily yet. But if they were the first, that fairly strongly implies ...of many. Feb 3, 2021 at 12:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .