Hello,

In the following sentence, should the main verb be "was" or "is"?

The boy who broke your kitchen window was/is my brother.

Both "is" and "was" seem to work, because the boy is still my brother, present not past.

But is "was" grammatically better?

Apple

 

 

Original Post

Both present and past tense are possible. I tend to prefer the present.

"Backshifting" is the tendency when reporting speech to change the tense to past tense. Sometimes this makes sense:

Hamza said "I'm working in a cafe".

Hamza said that he was working in a cafe.

But it is not required, and not backshifting can emphasize that the person reporting believes something is still true.

Hamza said that he's working in a cafe. It must be a new job.

For "facts" there is no need to make this emphasis, as the fact isn't going to change, so

Hamza said that London is the biggest city.

Hamza said that London was the biggest city.

would mean the same. Perhaps the second could be used if you want to doubt Hamza 's report.

Hamza said that LA was the biggest city in the USA, but I'm sure that New York is bigger.

But even in this case using "is" would also be correct.

Abo Hamza posted:

Both present and past tense are possible. I tend to prefer the present.

Hi, Apple,

While I agree with Abo Hamza that both the present and the past tense are possible in examples such as yours, I myself tend to prefer the past tense. As a native speaker, I find backshift more pleasing to the ear in such cases.

The interesting feature of your example, which differentiates it from all the examples Abo Hamza has given, is that "backshift" occurs in the main clause rather than in the subordinate/complement clause.

Consider that the sentence answers the question "Who was the boy who broke your kitchen window?" That is the natural question to ask, since the situation is in the past. Regarding a criminal line-up at a police station, however, we could say:

A: Who is the boy who broke your kitchen window?
B: That boy right there. He broke my kitchen window.

But the sentence "The boy who broke your kitchen window was my brother" is not identifying someone who is present at the time of speech. It is making a past identification (cf. the cleft "It was my brother who broke your kitchen window").

Thank you, David, and ABO HAMZA.

How about the following example?

The woman you saw at the library is/was a famous artist.

In this case,  does  "is" sound more natural, because the woman's being an artist is still true?

Or does "was" still sound more natural to native speakers?

Apple

apple posted:

How about the following example?

The woman you saw at the library is/was a famous artist.

In this case,  does  "is" sound more natural, because the woman's being an artist is still true?

Or does "was" still sound more natural to native speakers?

Both choices are natural, Apple, and neither is better than the other. Perhaps you're imagining that "is" is better because of a different type of case, where we can speak of an artist's being famous even long after he or she has passed away. For example:

  • The person who composed this piece is a very famous composer: Mozart.

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