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Scenario: My friend John has a personality disorder, intensely paranoid for example.

Can I say:

There were three events last year that told me John had a problem.

or can I say:

There were threee events last year that told me John has a problem.

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2 Answers

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I agree with mgkrebbs in the case of storytelling. In conversation, however, if I say:

There were three events last year that told me John had a problem.

I am implying that he had a problem last year but that the problem is no longer present. If I say:

There were three events last year that told me John has a problem.

I am implying that the problem existed last year and continues into the present.

Might I also suggest the following (assuming the problem still exists):

Three events last year told me John has a problem.

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Of the two alternatives, the correct one is There were three events last year that told me John had a problem. It should not be phrased with has because the verb told is in the past, so it must have told you about something in the past (i.e. John had a problem). It says nothing about whether the problem is or is not currently present.

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But what if I said : 'Look, John is sick, there were three events last year that told me John has a problem.' –  nicholas ainsworth Mar 26 '11 at 6:37
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You could say that without raising eyebrows; it would be more or less understood. In a way, it might be taken as a shorter form of John is sick. There were three events last year that told me John was having a problem. If you want to say he is now having a problem, you could say something like John is sick. There were three events last year that tell me John has a problem. or ...is having a problem. –  mgkrebbs Mar 26 '11 at 6:54
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It sounds a lot more strained to say There were three events last year that tell me... than to say Three events last year told me he has a problem. Possibly the best way is to avoid the issue: John has a problem: three events last year told me so. –  psmears Mar 26 '11 at 11:52
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