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Examples: xxx was the founder of ... xxx was the first ...

This does not limit to living person/person passed away, but also items.

To me the status of the first, the founder of etc. does not change and stays there forever. Its always true.

Something that changes e.g. yyy was the fastest computer makes more sense as the fastest can be replaced with something more modern.

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The past tense is used because the events involved were in the past.

"William the Conqueror was the first Norman king of England"

is grammatically correct because he was king in the past, even though the statement will always be true.

However,

"Hilary Clinton will be the first female President"

is also grammatically correct, because the event of her becoming President is in the future. After her presidency had ended, it would become "Hilary Clinton was the first female President". So "Barack Obama is the first African-American president."

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    Minor (but pertinent) correction: immediately after she is inaugurated, and for at least the following four years (presuming no interruption in her office), we will say "Hillary Clinton is the first female president". Then, unless she is re-elected, we will switch to using "was". – Dan Bron Jul 31 '14 at 11:09
  • I agree "was" is used because of the past event, but on the other hand that is simply neglecting the always true fact. Is there a rule here, e.g. the tense follows the subject? If thats true, how about a swapped version: "The first Norman king of England IS William the Conqueror"? – user1589188 Aug 1 '14 at 1:46
  • @Dan - Agreed and edited :) And user, the sentence has the same meaning and grammaticality regardless of the order of "William the Conqueror" and "the first Norman king of England"; both are in the past. (If one was in the past and one in the present, how could they be the same?) – Binney Aug 1 '14 at 12:22

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