Today, I used a chapter taken from a writing book as my teaching material in class. When I was explaining the following paragraph to my students, I suddenly felt that there is something wrong with the underlined part.
Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to write fast. It was said that Hemingway was a master: when he was writing a story,he liked to write on a bar counter as high as his chest instead of sitting at a desk--he would write as long as he could stand.
I was doubtful about "It was said " and thought that it should be changed to "It is said". My reasoning was that although Hemingway's being a master in this respect was something in the past, many modern people still talk about it and often cite it to illustrate their point. I talked about my doubt and my correction suggestion in class. And also I said that I would do some research on this issue and that I expected my students to do the same after class.
When I got home from work, I immediately went to my dictionaries and got in my Oxford and Longman dictionaries the following example sentences:
It is said that she lived to be over 100. It is said that he was a spy during the war.
It seems that my reasoning in class was correct. Just now I googled "It was said that" in order to make my research complete, but I failed to get something really helpful. Over here in China, the compilers of English grammar books tend to equate "It is said that..." with "People say that..." and claim that the two can be used interchangeably.
Please tell me how you find my judgement on the underlined part of the paragraph I used in my lecture? Should it be changed to "It is said that"? Does there exist "It was said that" in English? And what is the difference between the two structures?
It is said (that) she lived to be over 100.
It is said (that) he was a spy during the war.
It is said (that) H. was a master when /at writing short stories.
As you already know, the above sentences are correct. If you then change each of them to 'it was said', how much does the meaning change? Not much. It is said suggests it is still being said or claimed and it was said suggests those at the time were saying or claiming that .. .
As for H., he was a master at writing short stories and his stories are still around and many experts then and today agree that he had this talent so it is said would be more apt than it was said. Sometimes however, both it is said and it was said suggest that the facts are no longer verifiable but in H. case they are, so again I'd go with it is said.