# Does "She had a brother" mean that her brother is dead?

My Friend has sent me this riddle to solve:

"If you solve this, then you are a genius. Mr.Smith has 4 daughtersπββπββπββπββ and each daughter had a brother. How many children does Mr. Smith have now?"

He said the answer is not 5, but 4 only as in the riddle it is mentioned as each daughter had a brother. So their only brother is dead.

Is he right?

• There was never one brother. There were four brothers since each daughter had one. Presumably they are now dead. Apr 16, 2018 at 19:25
• @Lambie If there were four brothers, then each daughter wouldn't have had one. Each daughter would have had four. Apr 16, 2018 at 23:49
• Four daughters, each had a brother=four brothers. But they are all dead: each daughter HAD a brother. The answer is four. But the riddle is weird to begin with. Apr 17, 2018 at 13:46

Using the past tense certainly implies that brother has died, but this is not universally true. For example, in narrative it's common to backshift all verbs to the past tense.

Not long ago there was a man with four daughters, and each of the daughters had a small dog. One day the daughters were out playing with their dogs when suddenly ...

The present vitality of the dogs is ambiguous, and in fact unimportant to the story. Because backshifting is a common narrative device, with your joke you should not assume the brother is dead. Another example:

When I was growing up I had a brother who used to get into all kinds of trouble.

From this, you could not definitively say that my brother is now dead. Again, in the context of the story it doesn't matter, and you'd have to explicitly ask if you wanted to know.

Anyway, the main point of the joke is to recognize each of the daughters would have the same male sibling, and not four separate male siblings -- but, with the given information, it's impossible to say whether this brother is alive or dead. You'd have to ask.

Related note: As if that wasn't confusing enough, it's also common to use the present tense to talk about historic figures now deceased, especially when referring to the current effects of their past work:

Even though he died when he was only 52 years old, William Shakespeare is still considered the most influential writer in all of English literature.

• The riddle begins: ".... Mr.Smith has 4 daughters.... each daughter had a brother.... How many children does Mr Smith have now?.....In your answer, the story begins in the past ".... there was a man with....each daughter had a small dog...." and continues in the past. It's a trick question. Apr 16, 2018 at 18:40
• @Mari-LouA Honestly, the use of have/had doesn't mean anything. Please see my edited answer. Apr 16, 2018 at 19:19
• We're trying to guess what the author of the riddle intended? Several answers seem equally plausible to me. Maybe Rahul Yadav, the author of the question, should ask the author of the riddle whether he intend the change from "has" to "had" to be meaningful. Reread the question header. Does an expression would mean something? What does that would mean, oh experts? Apr 16, 2018 at 20:03
• @Chaim If the author of the joke was trying to ask a trick question using "had" to imply the brother is dead ... well, I don't think it works very well, given the ambiguity of "had" with regard to someone being currently alive. I'll edit my answer to reflect your concern, but see my examples for other interpretations. Apr 16, 2018 at 20:38
• It's a trick question, the whole idea is to fool us into assuming the obvious. If the 4 daughters are alive then we naturally assume the same is true for their brother. Our brains, our life's experiences are at fault here, not our command of the English language. Just like Lambie (maybe she's kidding) who literally interprets that each sister has a male sibling. But if that were the case, what would we say if there were a total of five brothers? That each sister had five brothers? No. Each sister has an only brother i.e all the sisters have the same brother. Apr 16, 2018 at 21:42

honestly whatever happen to the brother, Mr Smith (father) has 5 children.

Question is how many children isnt it ? not asking how many living children, in that case whatever happen, they were 5 children.

• No, if one child had died we wouldn't still say that the father 'has' that child. We would say that he 'had' the child, but the child is dead now. He used to have 5 but now he has four. If Mr. Smith were dead we'd say he had five children. He no longer has them because he's dead. Very confusing, I know. May 1, 2018 at 16:07