The following item appeared in the column of one-sentence news items on the front page of my morning newspaper:
William Bradford Bishop Jr., who was a State Department employee in 1976 when he is suspected of killing his wife, mother and three sons, was added to the FBI’s list of “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” drawing renewed attention to the case.
Conveying a coherent report in 50 words or less is quite a feat, and the writers in my paper usually do an amazingly good job of it. Nevertheless, this strange assortment of verb tenses left my grammar nerve twitching.
The principal fact being reported is that the FBI has added Bishop to the list of “Most Wanted Fugitives.”
Next in importance is the reason for which Bishop was added to the list: he is a suspected murderer.
Last in importance is the fact of Bishop’s employment at the time of the murders.
All three facts refer to past events, so present tense is definitely does not belong.
Changing the is to was would help, but then we would have: “Bishop, who was an employee in 1976 when he was suspected, was added to the list.”
Not only does this revision produce a litany of three wases in a row, it obscures the most recent event being reported: the fact that the man has been added to the “Most Wanted Fugitives” list.
What we need is a tense that will distinguish the most recent past from the remoter past. Enter the present perfect:
William Bradford Bishop Jr., suspected of killing his wife, mother and three sons in 1976 when he was a State Department employee, has been added to the FBI’s list of “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives,” drawing renewed attention to the case.
Both was added (simple past) and has been added (present perfect) describe completed actions, but the present perfect describes a completed action that is still relevant in the present. The present tense auxiliary has adds an immediacy to the news item that alerts the reader to which of the three facts being reported is the most recent.