Now, say, I am talking to A about B's brother:

-He is/was a man of bad habits.

In English grammar, usually when referring to a dead person, or things related to him, we need the past tenses, but when I don't know whether the person in question is dead, like B's brother, what tense would native speakers use?

  • 1
    Depends on how you want to refer to the person or his habits. If you want to describe him as someone in the past, use past otherwise, use present.
    – Noah
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 7:48
  • 2
    This seems to be a question of social etiquette rather than language.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 10:38
  • 1
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about social etiquette rather than language.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 10:39
  • 3
    You can use the present perfect: he has been a man of bad habits. That does not rule out continuing behavior, or rule it in.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 12:24
  • 1
    2. This question can't be off-topic; language and grammar must be linked to reality, and reality concerns social etiquette. Conversation English is definitely social etiquette, but, with all due respect, can we say conversational English should never be learned in learning English?
    – Joe_Asia
    Commented Jul 24, 2013 at 1:30

1 Answer 1


The general rule of thumb is to refer to a specific time period when describing habits. If you are talking about someone's childhood habits you would say:

Alice was a girl of bad habits.

Likewise if they have been dead for some time:

Gandhi was a man of bad habits.

If they have recently died then there is no proper way. Follow the pattern used by the grieving family if possible; otherwise I would recommend past tense.

But as for your particular scenario, where you don't know if the brother is alive or dead, refer back to the time period being described. If you are talking about how he acted back in school use "was". If you are referring to their current or recent habits use "is".

As far as politeness, it is significantly less offensive to assume someone is alive than assume they are dead. When in doubt, consider them alive until otherwise informed.

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