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Most Democratic voters in the state, 72 per cent, said they thought it is(was) important for the US to elect a woman president in their lifetimes, and that included roughly two-thirds of men.

What's the difference between the is and was here? More examples:

A source close to Meadows said he has not aggressively pursued the post.From CNN

He lives in Florida, and someone recently told me he has six grandchildren.From NYTimes

She voiced her concerns with corporate leaders too, saying she thought it's important for the community to know that these language and cultural barriers exist, and more should be done to knock them down.From CBS news

We use the present simple to talk about general facts that we think are true and permanent at the present time.from Cambridge grammar

Does the use of the present over past suggest that the speakers strongly believe in the ideas at present?

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    Source? I think it's just that the writer wants to think he's got his finger on the pulse of public/Democrat opinion, and he's been tempted to use Present Tense because he currently [still] thinks it is important that the US should elect a woman to high office. But he knows that idiomatically we nearly always backshift when reporting what someone said they thought. If the writer was halfway competent though, he's have restricted himself to choosing between 72% said they think it is important OR 72% say they think it's important. Oct 4, 2023 at 17:41
  • is refers to now and was to an earlier time. Is this speech or writing? It is either a change of word OR he is referring to an earlier time and to today. Something in the past can refer to something that continues to be true so is is OK. The fishermen said "the water is calm".
    – Lambie
    Oct 4, 2023 at 17:59
  • @Lambie - that's direct speech, though, isn't it? In reported speech, wouldn't we say 'the fishermen said [that] the water was calm'? Oct 4, 2023 at 21:05
  • Reading "is refers to now…” and “…so is is OK." just looks like typos; formatting and extra words clarifies: "The present form "is" refers to now… and “…so "is" is OK"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 5, 2023 at 11:08

3 Answers 3

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With indirect speech, if the tense isn't backshifted, it indicates that the statement being repeated is still true now, at the time of writing.

Your first statement is about the result of a poll in the past (not the importance of electing a female president), so there's no reason to believe that the same people would say they think it's true now.

There's also the argument that timeless truths can always be reported in the present tense.

While this applies to statements like "water boils at 100°C" and "ants are a social species", it doesn't extend to something as localized and time-limited as the first election of a female president in the United States.

So, only "was" is correct in that sentence.

For the other examples, they're all reported speech from someone spoke recently enough that we can assume that person still believes it's true, so the present tense is correct. And in all three of those cases, all the highlighted present verbs could be shifted to the past, only losing the nuance that they were said recently.

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  • More examples have been added. It appears common in the news report.
    – Jones
    Oct 5, 2023 at 1:38
  • @Jones Thanks. I've added a paragraph that covers the new examples and contrasts them with the first example
    – gotube
    Oct 5, 2023 at 2:23
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When reporting speech from the past, if the statement made in the past was presented at the time as a timeless truth, then use is:

He insisted that the higher the pressure, the higher is the temperature.

But when the statement refers to something that was true at that moment only, use the past tense:

He said he was thirsty and that he wanted a drink of water.

P.S. You can describe the results of a recent poll using the present tense and the meaning would be that the results are still applicable in the present; but you do have the option of reporting the stated results using the past tense, which is silent in respect to whether the results are still applicable, saying nothing about that one way or another:

The poll indicated that most people think it is important that a woman president be elected.

The poll indicated that most people thought it was important that a woman president be elected.

The farther back in the past the poll was taken, the less likely it would be that the present tense is justifiable, since the very premise of polls is that opinion changes over time. The present tense would likely be incongruous.

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Using is would not be idiomatic English. Compare to

By the early 1860s, many Northerners had come to believe that it was important for the US to abolish slavery.

Because the US did abolish slavery shortly thereafter, we couldn’t replace was in that sentence by is.

Likewise in the sentence you ask about, said and thought are in the past tense. So the opinion that those voters were expressing involved conditions at the time. Indeed, no doubt at least some of those voters’ lifetimes have since expired, and obviously is cannot work for them.

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  • Can't we use the present tense in reported speech for things that are eternally true (for some value of 'true'), e.g. 53% of Republican voters believed that the earth is flat, or that the sun rises in the west? And isn't it important that the US elects a woman president? Oct 4, 2023 at 19:15
  • Yes, @MichaelHarvey, we can. And I do believe it is important that the US elect a woman president. But that importance is not an eternal truth. Once we do so, it will automatically and unavoidably graduate from “Important to Do” to “Accomplished.” At that point, perhaps its place on the “Important to Do” list will be taken by something like “routinely elect further women to the presidency.” But that one, though related, is a distinct proposition. Oct 4, 2023 at 19:31
  • What if the verity is perhaps not eternal, but certainly long-lived enough spans from the time of speech to the time of reporting, like something in a newspaper? Oct 4, 2023 at 21:06
  • @MichaelHarvey, if that applied in the situation floated in the OP, and is were appropriate, then it would have to read “Most Democratic voters … said they think it is important…” Oct 4, 2023 at 21:53

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