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This is the scenario: John had six children; two died, four are alive.

(Important Point: John is still alive)

Now someone wants to know about John's progeny, so he'd ask:

"How many children does John have?"

What is the answer to this question? Four or Six, because present tense refers to someone who is alive.

This is a doubt: In the case wherein the asker intends to know the total number of children, will he use present or past tense. As in:

"How many children did John have?"

or

"How many children does John have?"

  • One way to answer this question would be: He fathered six children (of whom four are alive) – Ronald Sole May 28 at 22:40
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This is a good question.

If someone asks

How many children does John have

in the circumstances specified, the grammatically correct answer would be

He has four children

because the question is framed in the present tense and so relates to the current situation.

In social practice, such a question would likely elicit a more nuanced response like

He has four living children, but he had two others who died in a tragic car wreck five years ago.

You cannot use mere tense shifts to describe complex situations.

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