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I've been binging Criminal Minds on Netflix recently. The season six character Ashley Seaver is the daughter of a serial killer. He's in jail in North Dakota, which doesn't have the death penalty. He stopped killing when he was arrested, but since he's still alive, he could kill again. Which sentence is correct:

  1. Her father is a serial killer.

  2. Her father was a serial killer.

Also, would that same construction fit occupations/callings/professions? Say, a retired doctor? Perhaps a soldier who's been discharged but can still be called to active duty? A biker who doesn't currently own a motorcycle?

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    Would a serial killer be no longer a serial killer just because they are in jail? Btw it is not a profession, but a pathology. – user66974 Jan 26 '17 at 13:19
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    That's the question... – miltonaut Jan 26 '17 at 13:20
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    Agreed with Josh. The serial killer example doesn't accord with the doctor or soldier examples. A serial killer is a serial killer by virtue of having killed a string (series) of people. From there out, he is a serial killer. He doesn't ever have to kill anyone again. Newspapers and other credible sources unselfconsciously describe captured/arrested/jailed serial killers as serial killers. The doctor and soldier are different scenarios, and he "paused" question can be interestingly applied to them. – Dan Bron Jan 26 '17 at 13:21
  • @Josh You are quite right but the exception to this is Britain's worst serial killer, Dr. Harold Shipman, the family doctor who murdered hundreds of his patients over decades. This evil human being managed to do what he did precisely because his professional position enabled him to evade detection of the pathological personality disorder that triggered his homicidal activities. The court found that he was neither criminally nor clinically insane. – Peter Point Jan 26 '17 at 14:51
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    I think that something like "serial killer" or "murderer" is not really considered to be an "occupation" that one begins or stops. It's a description of the person, part of their nature, even if they're no longer committing the crimes. – Barmar Jan 26 '17 at 23:50
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"Serial killer" is not a profession

I think we need to distinguish fact from ongoing activity here.

When you have been a serial killer, you will always be a serial killer. You cannot take it back. "Serial killer" is a label that we attribute to someone who has killed multiple people in the past.

Regardless of whether he will kill again or not, the fact remains that he is a serial killer.

This is similar to saying that

He is a Nobel prize winner

That is a fact that will remain true in the future. Regardless of whether that person is trying to win another Nobel prize or not.

Only if his Nobel prize is revoked, would it be incorrect to still call him a Nobel prize winner. But you cannot linguistically account for the remote possibility of corrections being made to the past; there is zero expectation for anyone to do so.


A more in depth example

Consider the following sentences, when stated in 2017:

George Washington is the President of the United States

That is incorrect. The current President is Donald Trump

George Washington was the President of the United States

That is correct. In the past, he was the President.

However:

George Washington is the first President of the United States.

This is still correct! Regardless of his death or the existence of successors, George Washington will always be the first President that the United States had.

Compare it to this sentence:

George Washington was the first President of the United States.

Although this is correct too, since the use of past tense implies that he is not currently the President; this could also possibly carry the implication that George Washington was initially believed to be the first President, which has now been proven to be incorrect.


Being a serial killer is like being the first President. It is an irrefutable fact.
Even if this serial killer goes on to bring forth world peace, cure cancer and develop the means of long distance space travel, he would still be a serial killer. This label cannot be removed once it is (correctly) attributed.

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It all depends on context, I think. Let's get outside serial killing topic and take a doctor. There can be cases when it is important to underline that a person is still himself nevermind the obstacles. Like that:

A: He was a great doctor, but now he's retired.
B: He still is a great doctor, even though he does not practice anymore.

Second sentence kind of says that he didn't lose his talent even though he lost his job.
But it is also possible to say opposite:

A: He used to be an outstanding writer.
B: But he hasn't written anything to prove it again.

OR

A: He was a good soldier
B: He still is. (in our hearts because he's dead)

That's my interpretation.

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