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Which one is correct:

  1. Edison was the inventor of the light bulb.
  2. Edison is the inventor of the light bulb.

When writing or speaking about Edison, it's correct to state that "he was an inventor", but what is correct when referring to the fact that he (still) is considered the inventor of something?

Option 1 (was) wins the Google contest by 19100 to 6, which probably answers my question. However, as a non-native English speaker, this isn't totally clear to me. As a matter of fact, I'm not certain what tense I would use in my native language (Swedish) for this construct!

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If you use "Edison invented the light bulb" your temporal problem is removed. –  gam3 Jul 31 at 6:31

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

You can use either. The present you would use is called Historical Present. It's used both in fiction and in history books, depending on your choice. These are both acceptable:

  1. Edison was the inventor of the light bulb.
  2. Edison is the inventor of the light bulb.
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I didn't add it to the answer because I'm not sure but in Italian you could use the future tense as well, for historical events. I'm not sure this applies to English. (Some native speaker might confirm or not.) –  Alenanno Jan 31 '12 at 10:53
    
As part of a historical narrative, yes. “In 1879, Edison will go on to patent an improved light bulb”. –  MετάEd Jan 31 '12 at 14:43
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@MetaEd: "In 1879, Edison would go on to patent an improved light bulb" sounds better to my ears. I wouldn't use the indicative unless a narrative context had been established, and I especially wouldn't use it with a specific point in time in mind. I would also prefer "after 1879" to "in 1879". –  Robusto Sep 22 '12 at 20:02
    
In English there is no future tense. –  Noah Sep 23 '12 at 6:52
    
@Noah - But someday there will be. –  MT_Head Sep 23 '12 at 7:07

As other answers explain, either is correct grammatically. However, "Edison was the inventor of the light bulb" could imply to me that he is no longer the inventor! So it may be "technically the most correct" to use "is", albeit its lack of popularity.

Specifically the "was" is shorthand for "Edison was the inventor, but now he's dead", so it may depend on the context which one you really want to use.

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Late Edison is the inventor of the light bulb is the correct usage

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Please explain your reasoning... we need more than just personal opinion! –  Andrew Sep 22 '12 at 5:56
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I have never heard anyone over the age of 10 use 'Late Edison' as opposed to 'the late Thomas Edison'. It may be common in your circles, but that doesn't make it "correct". –  TimLymington Sep 22 '12 at 9:36
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He's known as Late Edison because, despite his many achievements, he never did manage to invent a decent alarm clock. (Note: this is almost certainly not true.) –  MT_Head Sep 23 '12 at 7:08
    
I would argue any deceased person, being no longer alive, is not naturally said to "be" anything, or to "exist" in the accepted sense which warrants "is". So, outside of the special case of 'historical present' (nicely described above), I would argue the natural tendency is to expect the past tense. Insisting on the historical present, I believe, is narrow to the point of incorrect. –  shermy Dec 25 '13 at 8:57

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