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What is the correct tense to be used when talking about firsts?

He was the first person to reach the South Pole.

He is the first person to reach the South Pole.

The first one seems right, but then at present, he remains the first person to reach the South Pole, so isn't the present tense justified?

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I believe it depends on context of usage. –  Bidella Apr 16 '12 at 5:42
    
Not every single word of every single sentence you utter has to simultaneously reflect every detail of reality: it depends on what interpretation of reality you want to convey. If you want to emphasise his current status as the first person, then you can use the present tense, but with a perfect infinitive: "He is the first person to have reached the South Pole". Your first sentence focuses on the event of him arriving as it happened at the time. (Your second version would imply he was arriving now, including as a so-called historic present.) What emphasis do you want to place? –  Neil Coffey Apr 16 '12 at 15:23
    
possible duplicate of What tense to use for a dead person's permanent contributions? –  jwpat7 Apr 16 '12 at 16:03
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4 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

While technically your statement is true--he remains, and in fact will always be, the first person to reach the South Pole--nevertheless the use of the present tense is not called for unless he is currently at the South Pole at the culmination of his groundbreaking journey, or unless he remains the only person to have made it to the South Pole; in both cases, the 'first-ness' of the journey remains current.

You can think of it as a chain of events that happened in the past: someone made it to the south pole, then someone else, then another person. When speaking of these events, we naturally use the past tense; when referring specifically to their sequence, we would say "he was the first, she was the second, this group was third to reach the South Pole."

Alternatively, if you specifically want to call out the fact that someone will always be at the head of the chronological list of people who visited the South Pole, you can phrase it thus: "He is the first person to have reached the South Pole." (Note, however, that it is customary to use the past tense when referring to dead people, so once this person is deceased you wouldn't say "he is" anymore.)

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+1 Well said! –  Jim Apr 16 '12 at 4:04
    
I'm afraid I've to disagree with you on both the points. Checkout the literature for usage, rather than rules of grammar. No one can ever be the first to reach the South Pole again. –  Kris Apr 16 '12 at 4:28
    
+1 also. I would add that perhaps "he is..." could be used more commonly to refer to something that isn't a single event but a position - eg "he is the head of the department" - if that position is currently being held. –  Roy Apr 16 '12 at 7:43
    
+1 for a good explanation, and the note about usage regarding dead people. @Kris: Maybe re-read Hellion's first sentence? –  Amos M. Carpenter Apr 16 '12 at 8:56
    
@aaamos I did, and that prompted the correction I offered -- the person need not be sitting at the North Pole for us to use is. –  Kris Apr 16 '12 at 9:25
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My own view is that Amundsen, being no longer alive. no longer is a person, and so was would be correct. You have to use common sense in some cases; so the 'Titanic' was the largest ship to be sunk in the 20th century, and is the largest known wreck. (Note to pedants: I haven't checked the veracity of either statement.) But I don't think it matters much which you use.

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Matthew 22:31-32 But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” i.e. I AM, not I WAS. God refers to dead people in the present tense. But yes, conventional usage is to refer to them in the past tense. "My father is named Bob" while he is alive; "My father was named Bob" after he is dead. –  Jay Apr 16 '12 at 15:13
    
@Jay: without getting into theology, God in the Bible is the God of Jacob; Odin was the chief god of the Vikings. –  TimLymington Apr 16 '12 at 16:20
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Both are grammatically correct.

However, universal facts use the form is (in the sense there can never be another first). As in, X is the first to reach the South Pole. (Usually X is a proper noun, not he).

Trivial firsts use the form was, as in: He was the first to reach the goal post.

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I have never heard that distinction. –  user14070 Apr 16 '12 at 13:08
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I would classify the distinction in tenses this way, personally.

He was the first person to reach the South Pole, but others have done it since.

He is the only person to reach the South Pole, and remains so.

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