I am writing a piece of history coursework about the Holocaust. One of the section titles is What is the Holocaust, or What was the Holocaust? Could somebody please confirm which of these two is grammatically correct? Much appreciated...

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    Both are grammatically correct but "was" is semantically better. Either way, how is your Question not about your homework and even then, what did your dictionaries and search engines leave unclear? – Robbie Goodwin Nov 27 '18 at 22:55
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    'What is the Holocaust ?' asks what does the word mean. 'What was the Holocaust ?' asks for details about the historical events surrounding its occurrence. – Nigel J Nov 28 '18 at 2:35

I tend to agree with Robbie. The Holocaust is an event that occurred in the past so "was" seems most appropriate. Using "is" would also be well understood since the Holocaust is an historical event.


"What was the Holocaust" is most likely correct.

If the section of your paper is going to explain what 'the Holocaust' refers to, eg, the specific time in history when Germany murdered > 6M Jews, it would correctly be titled "What is 'The Holocaust'."

If the section of your paper is going to talk about the historical event itself, then the past tense seems more correct: "What was the Holocaust."

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    The question wasn't about capitalization. It's about which tense should be used ("is" vs. "was"), aka backshifting. – Laurel Nov 27 '18 at 22:23
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    Of the examples given of this sense of the word "holocaust" in the Oxford English Dictionary, in only about half of them is the word capitalised as a proper noun. For example: 1972 F. Forsyth Odessa File 306 The mausoleum of Yad Vashem,..the shrine to six million of his fellow Jews who died in the holocaust – WS2 Nov 27 '18 at 23:01

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