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During a job interview, I was asked why I quit my last job.

I told the prospective employer that my grandfather passed away in China all of a sudden. Because he was dead in China, I must go to China for the funeral arrangements according to the ancestor veneration practices of my birthplace's custom. I know what I said might be confusing him, but I could not figure out what was wrong with it when I said, "my grandfather was dead", I could feel that he wanted to laugh on hearing what I told him, but he just tried not to do it. I was not happy with him because he interrupted to ask, "so how is he now? ha ?"

I am not a native English speaker. I don't understand why he was teasing about my grammar but isn't the sentence, "my grandfather was dead" grammatically correct? Did the employer tease me because he wanted to correct the sentence that it should be, "my grandfather is dead"?

  • 1
    I'm so glad you found my answer helpful, but you may want to hold off for a day our so before accepting one. Here is a post on English Language Learners Meta that explains why: meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/1307 – ColleenV Mar 14 '16 at 21:40
  • @ColleenV, thank you for the advice. I have re-pressed the Click accordingly. – David Washington Mar 14 '16 at 21:45
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    Wow, it's realy poor taste to make jokes about someone's death to a relative. Even if he thought your choice of words was funny, he could have laughed about it later. – Jay Mar 15 '16 at 13:38
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    @Jay I think the strange choice of words made the interviewer laugh reflexively, which embarrassed them, and then they did a poor job of smoothing it over. – ColleenV Mar 15 '16 at 16:21
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Grammatically it is fine to say "My grandfather was dead", but there are two odd things about

My grandfather was dead in China.

It is odd to say that your grandfather was dead in China. His body is in China, but he is just dead. For example, if I say "My hair was brown in Texas." it makes you wonder if it changes color when I leave Texas and visit China. Also the past tense makes it odd, because you think "You hair was brown, but it's still brown right now, so why did you use the past tense?"

If I was explaining something that happened in the past, I might have said

The reason why I wasn't at work for a month in that year was because my grandfather had died and I needed to travel to China to make the funeral arrangements.

I think that the interviewer may have been uncomfortable talking with you about the loss of your grandfather and the odd addition of "in China" made him laugh out of nervousness. He tried to cover up his nervousness/discomfort with a bad joke. It was insensitive, but I don't think it was intended to be mean.

9

When you talk about an event that occurred you normally want to use a phrase that describes an action, rather than describing a condition.

"My grandfather was dead" means that he was in the condition of being dead, and perhaps had been dead for some time (or, and this is presumably the joke, might stop being dead).

The speaker probably would expect you to say "my grandfather had died" or simply "my grandfather died".

To die: the act of going from living to dead.
To be dead: the condition of not being alive.

I'm sorry about your grandfather.

5

The sentence "X was Y", in common English use, usually means both that some time in the past X had the property Y, and that X no longer has the property Y. For example, if I said "the tea was hot", I often am implying that it is no longer hot.

Because of this, "My grandfather was dead" is very infrequently used. It is much more often "My grandfather is dead", "My grandfather died", "My grandfather has died", "My grandfather passed away", or something similar.

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I don't understand why he was teasing about my grammar but isn't the sentence, "my grandfather was dead" grammatically correct? Did the employer tease me because he wanted to correct the sentence that it should be, "my grandfather is dead"?

There is nothing wrong with the grammar. However, 'death' is a state and therefore implies that by stating 'death' in the past tense, the 'state' of being dead is now over (or is not the present state - interpreted as if the dead person resurrected or something equivalent. Of course, reality tells us that resurrection isn't 'natural'.)

This is explained in Lacklub's answer (+1). Quoting:

"The sentence "X was Y", in common English use, usually means both that some time in the past X had the property Y, and that X no longer has the property Y. For example, if I said "the tea was hot", I often am implying that it is no longer hot."

PS. I don't think your employer should've laughed about it, but that's another story. I'd like to express my condolences.

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There was nothing wrong with your choice of words. Yes, "dead" is a state of being, and presumably if your father was dead in the past, he's still dead now. But we routinely use the past tense to describe a state of being that existed at a specific time in the past that we are talking about, even if that state still exists.

Like, "I ran into my old friend Jack last year. He saw my car in the parking lot. My car was purple, so he recognized it easily." Is the car still purple? Probably. You certainly could say, "My car is purple" if it still is. Either way is correct.

It occurs to me that a novel by one of the most famous writers in the English language, "A Christmas Carol", by Charles Dickens, begins with the sentence, "Marley was dead." Not, "Marley is dead", but "was dead". He says "was dead" five times in the first four paragraphs. So if it's wrong, you're in good company.

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There is nothing wrong with the grammar of saying that someone was dead. The statement could seem funny if something suggested that the person is no longer dead. That could be as easy to do as saying the word "was" with an unexpectedly strong emphasis. The humorous is caused by the aspect of something (dead people staying dead) not happening as expected. Although there are historical references of that happening found in religious texts, this is not believed to be a common thing.

It is a statement that can be quite sensible to say. For instance, if I talk to someone who is unfamiliar with United States history, such as a child, and the person asks about George Washington's involvement during America's Great Depression, I might say, "George Washington was dead in the 1920s". (His entire life was within the 1700s.) If someone asked what George Washington was doing during World War 2 (which was mostly during the 1940s), I might say, "George Washington was dead". Since the discussed time period is a past time, using past tense is quite sensible.

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"George Washington was dead in the 1920s" just sounds wrong. It sort of creates an expectation that he may have made a recovery in the 1930s.

"George Washington was already dead in the 1920s" is better, and "George Washington died before the 1920s" is better still.

But it would be correct to say "Despite their efforts, when they arrived at the hospital he was dead".

The correct way to phrase the original statement would be "Because he [had] died in China..."

  • Can you edit this to remove the direct reply to another answer? All answers need to stand independently, and while they can address concerns or ideas that match those expressed in other answers, need to explain and refute (or expand on) those ideas independently. @replies don't belong in answers. – Nathan Tuggy Dec 29 '18 at 4:17

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