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For example what variant is correct?

  • He was the man who did that first.
  • He is the man who did that first.

  • He himself appeared in a film about his life.

  • He himself appears in a film about his life.

  • He was the strongest man ever when he was alive.

  • He is still the strongest man ever even though he is dead.

  • He said this in his letters.

  • He says this in his letters.

  • In this photo he looked healthy.

  • In this photo he looks healthy.
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You used the wrong preposition in "On this photo...." That wasn't the point of your question, so I've corrected it for you. –  Pitarou Feb 20 '12 at 5:27

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

In most of your sentences, past and present tense are both fine. E.g.:

He said this in his letters.

This is fine, because he wrote the letter in the past.

He says this in his letters.

Even though he died 100 years ago, he still speaks through his letters, so this is also fine.

Be careful with this one:

He himself appeared in a film about his life.

This is okay, but only because the verb appear can mean to take part in a film/movie, play, television programme, etc.

The only one I consider wrong is:

* In this photo he looked healthy.

If you want to use the past tense, you should use appear.

When you say he looks healthy the focus is on you, and your experience. Your experience is happening now, so use the present tense.

When you say he appears / appeared healthy the focus is on him. He appeared healthy at the time the photo was taken and, because the photo has not changed, he still appears healthy now.

In this photo he looks healthy. OK

In this photo he appears healthy. OK

In this photo he looked healthy. WRONG

In this photo he appeared healthy. OK

EDIT

Barrie England points out that, in certain contexts, “In this photo he looked healthy.” is fine. The sense is something like, “As you can see in this photo, he looked healthy in 2000.”

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You suggest "past and present tense are both fine" in most examples, apparently extending this approval to counterfactual "He is still the strongest man ever even though he is dead." –  jwpat7 Feb 20 '12 at 7:16
    
@jwpat7 The keyword is ever. Ever implies we are looking back through all of history, i.e., “He is the strongest man who ever lived.” If I say, “He was the strongest man ever.” then I do not exclude the possibility of even stronger men who came later. –  Pitarou Feb 20 '12 at 10:19

All of your examples are grammatical. The choice between present and past tense in such cases depends to a large extent on how the speaker views the action or event described, and on the surrounding text. To take your last pair as representative, the comment In this photo he looked healthy might precede a further comment that he later contracted a fatal disease. In this photo he looks healthy carries less of an implication that his health subsequently deteriorated. These are subtle differences and the use of one or the other cannot be divorced from the situation in which each might occur.

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Barrie's last sentence is the key point. Any given utterance is set in a context, which will determine the choice of tense. For example, in the context of a biography on the life of Churchill, it would be natural to use the past tense: He said this in his letters. Other the other hand, in the context of someone now trying to extrapolate Churchill's character from comments he made in his letters, the present tense may seem more natural to the speaker. –  Shoe Feb 20 '12 at 8:09

According to English grammar universal truths and facts are always Present tense. As in "Sun sets in west". FYI http://www.englishtenses.com/tenses/present_simple

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I ate breakfast today. That's a fact. Which tense did I use? –  Pitarou Feb 20 '12 at 5:36
    
Not everything is a 'universal truth'. Not down voting, though. –  Kris Feb 20 '12 at 7:13
    
@Kris Apoorva edited their answer after I downvoted it. It’s more accurate, not, but doesn’t really answer the question, so I’m leaving the downvote as it is. –  Pitarou Feb 20 '12 at 10:28
    
Sure. No reason why you should change it now. –  Kris Feb 20 '12 at 10:31
    
@Pitarou i understand :) you need not give a justification. I edited it mainly because, i had missed out the word "Universal" in my answer. And i also realized that the question is not regarding "Universal facts" but just "facts" . –  Apoorva Feb 20 '12 at 11:12
  • He was the man who did that first. — OK
  • He is the man who did that first. — OK
  • He himself appeared in a film about his life. — OK
  • He himself appears in a film about his life. — OK
  • He was the strongest man ever when he was alive. — OK
  • He is still the strongest man ever even though he is dead. — WRONG
  • He said this in his letters. — OK
  • He says this in his letters. — OK
  • In this photo he looked healthy. — WRONG, but "In this photo he appeared healthy" is OK
  • In this photo he looks healthy. — OK
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The first sentence you identify as incorrect is valid in certain contexts. It could, at least in speech, be considered a valid contraction of, "He is still the holder of the title 'strongest man ever' even though he is dead." The ever implies 'for all time' and so is not limited by such puny constraints as mortality! –  Sam May 29 at 23:47

protected by tchrist May 29 at 22:28

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