I have online students studying English with me. A small number of them ask grammar questions. Sometimes the best answer I can offer is that I don’t know but will find an answer. Sometimes I’m stumped, so I’ve decided to come here for answers.

One of my students is reading a fictional blog about a lady who has a grandmother who has a sister named Dia. She asked why the following sentence has the word ‘had’ even though Dia is still alive. “She even didn’t know her grandmother had a sister.” I don’t know the grammar rule here, so the best I could say was that I’m sure ‘had’ is correct, and that because ‘has’ feels okay to me, some people must use ‘has’. In fact, because Dia is still alive, using ‘has’ makes much more sense to me.

Though I’d be happy to have a direct answer, I’d also like to know what books or websites I can turn to to find my own answers to grammar questions. Seems to me this one is a particularly advanced question, though I welcome someone telling me otherwise.

Thanks very much, Troy :)

  • 1
    (Much the same as He said he was British.) Oct 18, 2019 at 15:51
  • @FumbleFingers But isn't that example just reported speech?
    – JeremyC
    Oct 18, 2019 at 21:42
  • Thanks FumbleFingers ... this works :) I can't say that I myself find it more natural - as a general rule - to use the same tense in both main and subordinate clauses, but I appreciate this very much :)
    – troysantos
    Oct 21, 2019 at 15:47
  • Please, shift that even: She didn't even know...it will sound so much better.
    – Lambie
    Sep 11, 2020 at 19:34
  • Yes, Lambie, I completely agree :) Why in tarnation didn't I notice this LONG ago?! :)
    – troysantos
    Sep 13, 2020 at 2:55

2 Answers 2


She said, "I have a sister".

If we change it into indirect speech

It will be like this:

She said that she had a sister Does that mean that her sister is not alive?

In your sentence:

she did not even know that her grand mother had a sister

She did not even know is the main clause

that her grandmother had a sister(Dia) is the subordinate clause.

According to the sequence of the sentence if the main clause is in the past, the subordinate usually will be in the past tense.

So the sentence does not mean that her sister Dia is not alive.

  • This is right. It is just "reported" speech.
    – Lambie
    Sep 11, 2020 at 19:33

This is a strange one for sure!

She even didn’t know her grandmother had a sister.

It is tense agreement. The original sentence is simple past tense and not expressing a general truth (something that is always true), so both clauses should agree in tense. It can be changed to the present tense if her grandmother's sister is still alive:

She even doesn’t know her grandmother has a sister.

Or the present tense if her grandmother's sister has died:

She even doesn’t know her grandmother had a sister.

If we change only the second clause to present tense we are now expressing a general truth:

She even didn’t know her grandmother has a sister.

This will only be true while her grandmother's sister is still alive, since the present tense is usually reserved for living people, and the past tense is used for those who have died. Since this statement can't be true forever (it can't be a general truth), it is better to use the original sentence.

At the time it happened, she even didn’t know her grandmother had a sister.

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