Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Was" or "Is" . . . What Tense Makes Most Sense For One's Ancestors? (October 22, 2015)


Those of us who are immersed in the hobby or profession of genealogy have innumerable opportunities to explain orally or in writing how a particular ancestor is related. Think of how many times you have had to use and complete a sentence such as this . . . "Jane [Doe] Public ___ my great great grandmother."  How do you usually complete such sentences about your ancestors? And does it matter?

I will admit that until recently I would almost always complete such explanatory sentences by using the past tense "was" to refer to any ancestor no longer among the living. I would easily explain, "Arnold and Shirley Tew are my parents." When my mother's mother was still alive, I would explain, "Ruth [Cooke] Carpenter is my grandmother." But in contrast I would always explain, "Richard Tew was my 8th great grandfather. And . . .  "Joseph Carpenter was my 3rd great grandfather."

More recently I have changed my thinking and tried to adopt as consistently as possible new language when discussing or explaining about my ancestors. Specifically, the change has involved a switch from the past tense to the present tense when mentioning my ancestors. 

Why is this? 

Well, does a great grandparent stop being a great grandparent by virtue of being deceased? The answer, of course, is no. A great grandparent of any level remains just as much an ancestor as a parent remains a parent -- whether alive or deceased. The confusion in use of tenses arises from the attempt to indicate both living/deceased status as well as relationship status when talking about an ancestor. In most cases, whether or not an ancestor is still alive will be easily and accurately communicated by the relationship level attached to the ancestor. For example, very few of us have living 2X or more great grandparents. Nobody has a living 8X great grandparent. Thus, there is no need to use the past tense "was" in order to communicate whether or not an ancestor (particularly a remote ancestor) is alive.

Especially in these days of DNA genealogy, it should be clear that we who are alive today carry with us in our DNA bits and pieces of our ancestors. It is what makes us who we are. In a very real and material way our ancestors exist with us every day. They are with us in the present tense and they never cease being who they are in relation to us even when deceased.

So . . . for me it is the present tense that makes the most sense when it comes to explaining or discussing one's ancestors. Just as my mother is Shirley [Carpenter] Tew, my paternal grandfather is Arnold G. Tew, Sr., my 9X great grandfather is William Carpenter, and my 8X great grandmother is Mary Clarke.

Are your ancestors with you in the present tense, or are they figures that happen to be part of your personal history and reside deceased in the past tense?   

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Image created by the author using the family's 1958 edition of "SCRABBLE For Juniors" manufactured by Selchow & Richter Co. for The Production and Marketing Company (the copyright owner).
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Copyright 2015, John D. Tew
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12 comments:

  1. I think I generally go with the present tense when identifying a relationship with a deceased ancestor. I believe my ancestors' bodies are dead but that their spirits are alive but in a different sphere/environment than one in which I can physically see and communicate with them. (But there may be times when I've written about them in the past tense simply because I haven't been able to decide which tense fits best in the context of what I'm writing.)

    For me the bigger challenge comes when I have to explain that deceased ancestor's place in a census report or a will. For example, Tressa Froman Doyle appeared (or appears) in the 1920 census. Obviously her name still appears in the census record but sometimes the present tense doesn't fit context in which I'm writing. Likewise, Dixon's will recorded, or Dixon recorded in his will, or Dixon's will records.... Is there a correct and incorrect way in these circumstances, or do I just manipulate my writing so it all fits together? I wonder....

    I'll be interested to see if others comment and what they have to say.

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    1. Hi Nancy.

      You raise some very good points and examples. Personally, I think your decision to use the tense that best fits the context and structure of your writing is the way to go -- especially if the context refers to something the ancestor did, owned, etc. I have decided I like the present tense whenever I will be referring to my ancestors descriptively by relationship to me. The relationship, once established, is static and immutable and cannot change over time or after the ancestor's death. Once an ancestor is established as such and the level or degree of relationship is set, then he or she "IS" that relationship in the present tense to us who are living (in my humble opinion).

      With respect to your examples, I think the tense can be fluid with the context since your examples do not give the "title" of the individual ancestor's relationship to you; instead your examples talk to actions done by the individuals -- which were always in the past -- and so I think you can pick the tense that goes best with the context and structure of your writing. Your census example is a good illustration. Assuming you are citing to the 1920 census for facts about an individual (Tressa From an Doyle) as they existed in 1920, then you can easily say that the individual "appeared" in the 1920 census, which at this point was completed 95 years in the past. But, since you discovered the facts in the census many years after they were recorded, you could also say the individual "appears" in that historical document. I think either choice can be correct. If, however, one were to then follow up the statement about the individual being in the 1920 census with a statement about the relationship of the individual to you as an ancestor, then my preference (as explained in my post) would be to say something like, "Tressa Froman Doyle 'IS' my great grandmother."

      Thank you for your insightful comment and your helpful examples. The examples helped clarify in my mind how grammatical tense decisions should be made in genealogy when discussing ancestors (at least IMHO). ;-)

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  2. Wonderful post John! I've struggled with this very thing. Is or was?

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    1. I think all of us involved in genealogy have probably stumbled across this conundrum eventually. I decided I just had to write my observation and decision down. Now the hard part is to adapt to consistent use of the present tense (with which I am now more comfortable). I appreciate your commenting. Thank you!

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  3. I have struggled with is/are for my ancestors. I appreciate your comments. Thanks for writing about this.

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    1. Thank you for commenting . . . much appreciated.

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  4. John,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/10/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-october-23.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

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    1. Thank you Jana! As I have sincerely stated before, it is always an honor to be mentioned in your Fab Finds.

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  5. John, when I saw your topic listed with Jana's Fab Finds I just had to come over & read! I should have realized that others struggled with this. I have decided to use the present tense because, as you said, they ARE my ancestors, living or dead.

    I also wonder about this... Joe Smith WAS buried in ABC cemetery. OR Joe Smith IS buried in ABC cemetery. I know he was placed there in the past but I assume he is still there. What tense do you use?

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    1. Colleen: Please excuse the long delay in replying, but I somehow missed your comment (which is much appreciated). I think either form can be appropriate depending on the context and intent of the writing. If the writing is describing or concerned with the actual action of burying Joe Smith (and the burial has already been accomplished), then I think Joe Smith WAS buried is appropriate -- especially, for example, if it is followed by the date of the burial, or by the names of the pallbearers, or the minister who gave the prayer, etc. When referring in the writing to the location of the cemetery or other site of Joe's burial -- and the location/cemetery still exists as his burial location -- then I would use IS because (as you stated) Joe is still located at the site where he was buried some time earlier.

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  6. Thank you for this post. I have struggled with this for a long time. I use past tense, but would prefer present tense for the reasons you stated.

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  7. I don't think I'm consistent, though as is noted above, for me, it probably depends on the context of what I'm writing. However, after reading your post and the comments, I will be thinking about this more closely as I write future blog posts - thanks!

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