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I am struggling to choose the correct tense for this question:

What were the names of the sons of Mahatma Gandhi?


What are the names of the sons of Mahatma Ghandi?

His sons have passed away so I would naturally opt for 'were', but they are still his sons so 'are' seems more appropriate. Is this correct? Thank you.

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers word-choice Apr 29 '15 at 12:10

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  • 1
    For people in general, we only apply "are" to the living, because in an important sense they "are" no more. Just like we don't say George Washington is the first president of the USA, though no president preceded him, because George Washington isn't. – Dan Bron Apr 29 '15 at 11:25
  • Also related: Simple present or past in a series of past events? – TimLymington Apr 29 '15 at 12:13

Any change of context, including one of tense, will be seen as jarring by the reader if not motivated.

Do you really have any reasons to change here to the present, to show that their names have not changed through history (obvious anyway)?

You don't. Use the first.


Personally I would use "were" due to the fact that the sons have since passed on. Generally speaking, "are" is associated with the present.

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