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When talking about firsts that happened in the past, is it okay to use the present tense?

For instance, if we want to talk about George Washington being the first president of the United States, could we say: "George Washington is the first president of the United States."?

Technically he still is the first president and will be the first for the rest of time. But, he is no longer the president so should the statement be made in the past tense?

  • Hugely related question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/234618/… – Andrew Leach Oct 22 '15 at 18:52
  • @AndrewLeach The link is about a person who lived during 1790 who wanted to say G. Washington is/was the first President. This question is about a person living now. – user140086 Oct 22 '15 at 19:03
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No, George Washington was the first president of the United States. The simple past (was) is used to describe an action that started and finished at a specific time in the past. The simple present (is) is used to describe a general truth ("He is tall") or a specific condition ("He is coming") that currently applies. We can certainly say that George Washington is dead, or that George Washington is a hero to many, because we are then describing a current condition. Neither would we say "John Adams is the second president of the United States," even though there will never again be a second president. Of course we do say Obama is the 44th president, but in two years, this will be He was the 44th president, even though there will never be another 44th president. In other words, the fact that something is or was the first or the second or the 44th does not matter at all.

  • Can you please explain why these two are supposed to be fundamentally different: "George Washington is the first president of the United States now" and "George Washington will be the first president of the United States forever". The second one is clearly correct. The first one, while sounding odd, could have its uses too. – Færd Oct 23 '15 at 2:35
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    They are fundamentally different because one refers to the present and the other refers to the future, and both would have been idiomatically and grammatically correct in 1789. But neither works in 2015. Many facts remain facts forever; grammatical tenses do not change that. They merely place an event within a time frame. The bicycle is invented in 1817? No, it was invented in 1817. George Washington is Martha's only husband? No, he was her only husband. – user66965 Oct 23 '15 at 14:48
  • I thought at least you'd recognize my second example. I'm going to contemplate this more; maybe ask a separate question. – Færd Oct 23 '15 at 16:49
  • @user66965 I think the second sentence could be conditional on knowledge, and not the existence of George Washington. So George Washington will be the first president of the United States forever is probably a statement on what is known, and not whether George Washington exists, or not. It could be just hard to tell the condition without context. Perhaps a sentimental context? – Quentin Engles Mar 15 at 17:25

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