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I've been thinking about this for a long time now, and still haven't been able to come up with a logical explanation.

Which is more correct, [1] "He was my father." Or "He is my father?" [2] "He was born on April 20, 1920." Or "He is born on April 20, 1920."?

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  • To be born is always past unless you are being literary and uses all present tenses (historoical present). Person 1: Who is that man? Person 2: He was my father. [he is deceased]. You have two different questions here. The present can be used in narration.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 5 at 14:20

3 Answers 3

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If he's alive, he IS your father.

If he's dead, he WAS your father.

However, as long as you are alive you would always say "I am his son". When you are dead, other people will he say "he was the son of...".


On the subject of declaring birth dates, birth is an event that occurred in the past, so we say "he was born on...". However, as that date in history is also a fixed event, we can say "his birth date is...".

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    Whilst I agree with your answer, I think confusion arises because the biological relationship between you and your father hasn't been changed by his death. "Was" can imply that, somehow, he is no longer your father. Or am I just overthinking this? Commented May 5 at 9:08
  • Surely I am always my father's son? And my mother's come to that. @PeterJennings - I believe you are not overthinking this. Commented May 5 at 9:31
  • I agree with this - he was alive at the time of writing David Faber (politician) Wikipedia: He is the grandson of the late former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (1894–1986). but I think this is wrong - he was dead at the time of writing - LOS ANGELES (AP) ... Keough died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound Sunday in Calabasas, California. He is the grandson of the late Elvis Presley. Commented May 5 at 9:46
  • Can I mention that my father knew Lloyd George? Commented May 5 at 10:00
  • @MichaelHarvey, Can I mention that my father shook hands with Franklin D. Roosevelt? Commented May 5 at 11:32
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You don't understand the difference between someone who is alive and someone who has passed away?

  • My best friend is Joanna Smith
  • My best friend was Joanna Smith

If there were no context, a reader could interpret this as Joanna no longer being my friend but my opening sentence removes the ambiguity and sets the context. Do we use is or was for a person (it needn't be a parent) living today or who died at some point in the past?

On the other hand, I understand the OP's confusion about dates of birth because in Italian we literally say “She is born the 20 april of 1992” whereas in English the date/event is considered to be a single episode fixed in the past, so the copula(r) verb, be, is in the past tense.

She was born on April 20, 1992

But if you're talking about birthdays that is quite different. Birthdays happen every year during a person's life so the present simple is used for a person who is living, the year can be omitted

Joanna's birthday is on April 20. She is (now) 32 years old.

If Joanna passed away (died) then the verb will be in the past

Joanna's birthday was on April 20. She was 27 when she died.

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  • I think this confuses matters because someone can cease to be your friend but still be alive. The OP's question is about a familial relationship.
    – Astralbee
    Commented May 5 at 15:06
  • @Astralbee and Joanna was 27 when she died is still alive? The question is not just about a father (or mother) being alive or dead but fair enough. The downvote is justified.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 5 at 17:10
  • Mine was downvoted when your answer came in, without comment. If you can tell me what's wrong with mine that would be appreciated.
    – Astralbee
    Commented May 5 at 20:55
  • @Astralbee I didn't downvote. I would ask the author of any comment or observation that was even slightly critical.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 5 at 21:49
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This question is not as simple as it might appear, because there are two elements woven together: first, is that person related to me, and second, is he alive or dead?

If my father is alive, then we will say, "He is my father", using the present tense.

But if my father is dead, then actually either tense is correct, depending on what information I wish to communicate. If I wish to confirm the family relationship and not talk about my father's death, then "He is my father" is still a correct sentence. But if I say, "He was my father", I am revealing both facts about him at the same time.

So in part it depends on what information you want to disclose.

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