Usually we refer to a dead person using the past tense. For example:

Albert Einstein was wrong about...

But when we are talking about both dead and alive persons in the same sentence, should we use past or present?

a) Einstein and Tarantino are wrong.

b) Einstein and Tarantino were wrong.

The alive person (i.e. Tarantino) is still wrong about things and still doing it.

  • 3
    We use the present tense when referring to an author or artist, living or dead, in respect to his or her works, because the works are extant.
    – TimR
    Dec 20, 2015 at 12:43
  • 2
    I'm really curious now what idea(s) Einstein and Tarantino shared that are apparently wrong. Has Tarantino said anything at all about advanced physics in his career? Dec 20, 2015 at 15:25
  • 1
    @DarrelHoffman Perhaps they both said something about politics (Israel? socialism?) that the speaker disagrees with.
    – gerrit
    Dec 20, 2015 at 16:53
  • Einstein and Tarantino: wrong, dead or alive.
    – Drew
    Dec 21, 2015 at 1:42
  • xkcd.com/1206 Enough said.
    – cobaltduck
    Dec 21, 2015 at 14:55

3 Answers 3


We don't refer to dead people as still being wrong or right. They are neither, since they are dead (or if you prefer, they now have access to better information).

So you cannot say either Einstein is right or Einstein is wrong.

When referring to opinions living people expressed in the past, it is usual to use the past tense, unless you are certain that the opinion is still held by that person. So here you would say Einstein and Tarantino were wrong, since you don't actually know Tarantino's present opinion on the subject.

If you want to express that this is still Tarantino's opinion, your best option is "Einstein was, and Tarantino is, wrong" or possibly "Einstein was wrong, and Tarantino is wrong", or "Einstein was wrong, as Tarantino is", and so on.

To refer to two subjects, one in the past tense and one the present, you need two verbs, one past tense and one present.

  • 2
    I answered similarly, then deleted my answer because it wasn't quite thought through: as Tim Romaro points out in comments, we use the present tense when referring to an author or artist, living or dead, in respect to his or her works, because the works are extant. It was pointed out to me that scientific articles write "Simple theory says Newton is wrong, Einstein can be improved and dark matter does not exist". The subtlety that I needed to think through is that in this case, we are referring to Einstein's work, not his person or opinion. I wonder if you can work that in to your answer? :) Dec 20, 2015 at 21:14
  • 1
    @Ben you are mistaken. Writers do use the present tense to discuss dead people's ideas. It is called the literary present tense, and it is recommended in universities' style guides. See my answer for examples.
    – Jacinto
    Dec 21, 2015 at 1:16
  • 1
    @Jacinto, you are mistaken, that's a piece of academic jargon, not normal usage. Normal people do not speak or write like that in everyday language, or even in literature. Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Kingsley Amis, Dostoyevsky, all would find it odd. The academic usage is essentially metaphorical, using the name of the person to refer to their body of work. When a philosopher writes "for Plato, all things studied by the sciences have Form", they are not talking about Plato as a man at all, but about his philosophy.
    – Ben
    Dec 21, 2015 at 22:09
  • @Ben Why do you say J. Austen, Shakespeare, Kingsley Amis would find the literary present tense odd? Do they say anything to that effect? Anyway you have to take Kingsley Amis off that list. Here’s the man in his own words: "even I, with my tiny knowledge of both fields, can catch Kipling out on the bull-fight and on naval gunnery. He is wrong about the manufacture of liqueurs, too" (Rudyard Kipling and His World, Thames and Hudson, 1975, p. 81). Kipling had been dead for 39 years.
    – Jacinto
    Dec 22, 2015 at 14:03

It is fine to say Einstein is wrong to refer to views he expressed in his body of work. This is known as literary present tense, and is widely used in academic writing and literary criticism. Here is a piece of advice from Harvard University:

Whether you are dealing with fiction, poetry, or nonfiction literature, use the present tense (also called the literary present tense) to discuss the actions and thoughts presented in the text. Do this because literature exists as a present phenomenon regardless of whether or not its author is alive.

Here are some examples (my emphasis):

Aristotle conceives of ethical theory as a field distinct from the theoretical sciences. (…) Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well-lived life. Like Plato, he regards the ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance and so on) as complex rational, emotional and social skills. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]

But because he [Rudyard Kipling] identifies himself with the official class, he does possess one thing which ‘enlightened’ people seldom or never possess, and that is a sense of responsibility. [George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, 1942, six years after Kipling’s death.]

[E]ven I, with my tiny knowledge of both fields, can catch Kipling out on the bull-fight and on naval gunnery. He is wrong about the manufacture of liqueurs, too. [Kingsley Amis, Rudyard Kipling and His World, Thames and Hudson, 1975, p. 81, quoted in The International Fiction Review, 1977.]

The literary present tense is used mostly in nonfiction writing, but you can find it in fiction occasionally too:

Shakespeare says something about worms, or it may be giants or beetles, turning if you tread on them too severely. [R. Kipling, ‘His Wedded Wife’ in Plain Tales from the Hills, 1888.]

Shakespeare alludes to the pleasure of watching an Engineer being shelled by his own Battery. [R. Kipling, ‘Watches of the Night’ in Plain Tales from the Hills, 1888.]

Shakspeare alludes is a favourite with writers. It is used a lot more often than Shakespeare alluded (see n gram). And people have commented on Einstein (1879-1955) in this way too:

As Kiley indicates, Einstein is undoubtedly a realist. [J. F. Kiley, Einstein and Aquinas, Springer, 1969, p. XIX.]

Einstein believes there is an intrinsic order within the physical world, which exists outside of man. [Robert K. Logan, The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry, World Scientific, 2010, p. 209.]

So suppose Tarantino has been affirming this view of Einstein’s, and you disagree. Then you could say:

Einstein believes there is an intrinsic order within the physical world, which exists outside of man. Tarantino believes it too. Well, Einstein and Tarantino are wrong.

It would be different if you were thinking about something they did on a particular occasion. Then you would use the past tense. For instance:

Einstein and Tarantino both predicted it would rain on their 18th birthdays. It didn’t: they were both wrong.

  • 1
    "were" is incorrect. "are" is possible:
    – Graffito
    Dec 20, 2015 at 11:53
  • 1
    @Graffito If Tarantino has changed his views, 'Einstein and Tarantino were wrong' is arguably logical, but, I'd agree, infelicitous. Dec 20, 2015 at 12:07
  • 2
    The missing end of my comment (probably an incorrect operation) related to "are" was: "Botero and Rodin are famous sculptors" is for me an acceptable sentence.
    – Graffito
    Dec 20, 2015 at 13:05

Einstein and Tarantino are wrong

is correct, because we use the present tense to refer to timeless facts.

Einstein and Tarantino were wrong

is also correct, because we use the past tense to refer to past actions.

  • 2
    This is over-simplistic. Both are certainly grammatical, but if Tarantino is still wrong on the issue being discussed, the 'were' is infelicitous, violating the Gricean maxim of quantity (implying that the 'were' means {Einstein was wrong} and {Tarantino was wrong but as we have selected 'was' rather than 'is' here is now of the opposite persuasion}). Dec 20, 2015 at 14:04
  • 1
    Einstein being wrong is not a timeless fact. He is now dead and hence either has no opinion (being incapable of them with his brain in a jar), or has access to better information (and hence not being wrong), depending on your point of view.
    – Ben
    Dec 20, 2015 at 18:56
  • 2
    @Ben- One often refers to an author with respect to a particular paper: "Einstein, in his 1903 paper, Eine Theorie der Grundlagen der Thermodynamik, is wrong ...." This can often be elided to simply, "Einstein is wrong..." (Or right- as the case may be.) Also think about, "On page 6 Einstein says, "..."
    – Jim
    Dec 21, 2015 at 1:21

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.