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I'm currently writing a biography of a fictional character. Should I write "X is a child prodigy" or "X was a child prodigy" if X is currently an adult? My gut tells me to go with a past tense since X is no longer a child, but X is still outstanding in their field, so the prodigy part can still be refered to in present tense.

  • If X is an adult, you can say X is prodigy or X was a child prodigy, but your instinct is right: you cannot say X is a child prodigy. – Dan Bron Aug 29 '15 at 19:21
  • @DanBron You can, of course, do anything you like. Thomas Carlyle, I believe, wrote his History of the French Revolution entirely in the present tense, even though it was about 40 years after the event. – WS2 Aug 29 '15 at 19:39
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    @Ws2 My statement wasn't dealing in metaphysics or morality: it contained a tacit clause, omitted for the sake of brevity: you cannot say "X is a child prodigy" ... and expect to be regarded as correct, or have that usage perceived as felicitous, by your anticipated audience". – Dan Bron Aug 29 '15 at 19:47
  • @Dan: Shirley Temple is prodigy?? – FumbleFingers Aug 29 '15 at 19:55
  • @FumbleFingers You know copy-editing errors on frozen comments drive me crazy. Don't tickle my neuroses, please. And of all the potential child prodigies you could have picked as exemplars ... Shirley Temple, really? – Dan Bron Aug 29 '15 at 19:57
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The answer depends on which tense you use in your narrative. Usually a biography is related from the temporal point of view of the writer's present, so the past events are placed in the past tense:

X was born in 1922 and X began school at the age of 3. By the age of 4, X was posing and answering questions that stumped his teachers. Everyone realized that X was a child prodigy.

But nothing precludes the biographer from adopting the present time of the events:

X is born in 1922 and begins school at the age of 3. By the age of 4, X is posing and answering questions that stump his teachers. Everyone realizes that X is a child prodigy.

Changing the temporal point of view of the narrative changes the tense of the verbs, but of course, it doesn't alter the fact that past events have already happened.

What you can't do is describe the adult X as a child prodigy during the time X is an adult.

  • +1 for "What you can't do is describe the adult X as a child prodigy during the time X is an adult", which is what the OP is asking about. – Dan Bron Aug 29 '15 at 19:43
  • Shirley Temple was a child prodigy gets 8 hits on Google, but the same quoted string with is gets no hits at all. Okay, at least 2 of the 8 are after she died last year, but it's still strong evidence of what form is used. – FumbleFingers Aug 29 '15 at 19:53
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If you want to use the present tense, you could say that the person is a former child prodigy.

It sounds clunky, but it's used surprisingly often. There are many "where are they now" articles that use the phrase former child prodigy to refer to an adult who was a prodigy as a child.

  • I don't quite like this because it implies that the success and skill they had as a child is no longer a part of them. – Nzall Aug 29 '15 at 22:35
  • I understand and sort of agree, but the fact is it's a widely used phrase. Also, it's technically correct, because you can't be a child prodigy unless you're a child, and nobody stays a child. A child a prodigy is a young child who exhibits a level of ability in a field which is typical of a talented adult. Being able to do calculus at age 3 is prodigious, but being able to do calculus at 30 is pretty mundane. – barbecue Aug 29 '15 at 23:19

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