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Could you explain me why it is better to say

I did not know you had a brother.

even it is a present situation. Your brother is still alive. It is better to match the tenses and why can you use present perfect in this case

I did not know you have been ill.

and not past simple as in the first example. In both cases it may be a present situation (you still have a brother and you are still ill) but the tenses chosen are different. I thought it was better to match the tenses in both cases.

Will it be better to say

I did not know you were ill.

to use past simple and match the tenses as in the first example even if it is a present situation

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  • Note that to me, "I did not know you had a brother" absolutely implies that said brother is deceased. If he's not, then it must be phrased as "I did not know you have a brother" to avoid unfortunate implications.
    – Martha
    Sep 21, 2022 at 17:42
  • It absolutely does not imply that to me, @Martha. "I didn't know you had a brother" is certainly what I would say to somebody, for example, when I just discovered that a person I had met was their brother. I wonder if this is regional? I am in the UK.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 21, 2022 at 18:09
  • We use had all the time in these types of sentences.
    – Lambie
    May 27, 2023 at 14:45
  • @Martha The traditional logic is that you must say "I didn't know you had a brother" because you couldn't know in the past that a person would have a brother in the future. "I did not know (in the past) that (at that time) you had a brother." I think it may increasingly be within the realm of pedantry to speak like that, but that's probably why I associate that turn of phrase with "sounding posh".
    – fred2
    Sep 24, 2023 at 20:26

5 Answers 5

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I did not know you had a brother.

You would say this after finding out someone had a brother. So you know now, but before now, you didn't know.

A: I have a brother.

B: I do not know you have a brother.

This sounds like B didn't listen to A.

A: Does Jon have a brother?

B: I do not know whether he does or not.

This is accurate because you B is relating his/her current knowledge.

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There is a grammatical difference between:

I didn't know you were ill.

(which means the being ill is no longer true, it is in the past and you didn't know about in the past or someone is ill right now and you don't know about it).

I didn't know you have been ill

(which either means you have been ill for a while and are still ill or you have only just recovered and the being ill is recent and somehow still relevant now).

You wouldn't say: I didn't know you have had a brother". You either have a brother or you had a brother (if the brother died).

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  • i did not know you loved her can mean you still love her and relates to a present situation and you use past simple so when you write i did not now you were ill it can mean that you are still ill and both examples for me relates to the brother example I did not know you had brother can mean that you still have a brother what is the difference ?
    – Yves Lefol
    Oct 24, 2019 at 21:10
  • I have modified my answer.
    – anouk
    Oct 24, 2019 at 22:25
  • So would it be possible to say. I did not know you have loved her to say either your love has recently finished or still continues or is it like my example of the brother you love her or you dont love her there is no other alternative
    – Yves Lefol
    Oct 25, 2019 at 6:08
  • imagine that i met a girl with her baby in her arms. Obviously she was pregnant and gave recently birth. Shall I say "I did not know that you have recently had a baby"
    – Yves Lefol
    Oct 25, 2019 at 8:37
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You are right that

I didn't know you've been ill.

is anomalous.

The normal forms would be either

I didn't know you were ill.

or

I didn't know you had been ill.

(The difference between these is that the latter makes explicit that you were ill before the time I came to know it; the former leaves open when exactly you were ill).

I don't believe that I would say

I didn't know you have been ill.

But I would not be surprised to hear it from other people.

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You original question in 2019 was why "I did not know you had a brother" is considered "better" than a construction that uses the present tense like "I did not know you have a brother". I'm not certain the answers provided before entirely address the 'why', and some comments are unclear about whether it is correct at all.

In short, it isn't better. It is just one of several equally valid ways to express the same idea.

Others may disagree, but it boils down to whether you take an extremely prescriptive view of grammar or not. The traditional 'rule' would suggest that the tenses you use in a sentence must follow a logical sequence reflecting when things happened in time.

I did not know (in the past) that (at that moment in the past) you had a brother.

It is logically impossible for you to know, for certain, that the brother will still exist in the future, therefore your tenses should, it might be argued, also refer to the brother as if he exists in the past.

Nevertheless, I suspect only an overly strict grammarian would pick you up on using the present tense instead. Most native speakers would find it impossible to find anything wrong with the following.

I did not know you have a brother.

Take the following example:

The train leaves in 5 minutes. I didn't know the train left so soon!

The train leaving is in the future, but even so, because it was a moment in the past when I was ignorant of the time, I can - some might say should - say 'the train left' or another construction of tenses that follows a logical path in time. But you can use a variety of tenses, all equally validly:

I didn't know the train was going to leave soon.

I didn't know the train would leave so soon.

I didn't know the train leaves so soon.

I didn't know the train was leaving so soon.

I didn't know the train is leaving so soon.

In this context, it makes no difference which one you use, and I don't think there is any good reason to think one option is better than another.

The only thing you can't say is:

I didn't know the train had left so soon.

as that places the moment the train leaves further back in the time than the moment when realisation dawns of the train's imminent future departure.

Similarly, the tense of 'have/had a brother' really doesn't matter. Nevertheless, it does illustrate how 'correct' grammar can sometimes introduce ambiguities that 'incorrect' grammar avoids. If you say 'had a brother' it does introduce ambiguity about whether the brother still exists - you could accidentally imply he was dead. Usually you won't, but you could. Saying "I did not know you have a brother" avoids the problem.

There is a lot more on this problem at Wikipedia.

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It is not uncommon for different verbs in a paragraph or within a single sentence to have different tenses. It depends on when the things referred to happened.

"I did not know you have a brother." "Know" is in the past tense because my lack of knowing is in the past. I must know now that you have a brother or how would I be saying this sentence? But you have a brother now. The having of a brother is in the present. Presumably you had a brother at the time I didn't know and you still have a brother now. Unless the family has disowned him in the meantime, you still have a brother.

You COULD put the having in the past. "I did not know you had a brother." At the time that I did not know, you had a brother. Both events are in the past. Presumably you still have a brother today, but that's irrelevant to the sentence. Like if I say, "I ate a hamburger yesterday", I might be eating a hamburger today also, but that's not the point.

If you put the having in the past, someone MIGHT take that to mean that you no longer have a brother. Like, maybe he died. If you did no longer have a brother, then I certainly would put it in the past. I would also put it in the past if I don't know. Like I might say, "I did not know that you were a vegetarian when you were in college." Are you still a vegetarian now? Maybe and maybe not. Maybe I don't know.

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