Which one is correct?

  1. Dr Smith told me last night that your mom had all the symptoms of a person with Lymphoma.

  2. Dr Smith told me last night that your mom has all the symptoms of a person with Lymphoma.


The second one is correct as in reported speech, present simple is turned into simple past.

For example, Dr. Smith saying "This woman has all the symptoms of a person with Lymphoma" would turn into "Dr. Smith told me your mom had all the symptoms of a person with Lymphoma."


Everything being equal, in reported speech the tense is normally shifted into the past. This is called backshifting.

But in some cases both senses can be correct.

It's fine to leave the tense in the present if the condition still exists. (See this ELU post.)

There are also cases where leaving something in the present tense would actually make more sense:

For instance:

He told me he only had one arm.
He told me he only has one arm.

Here, unless there is some reason to dispute the validity of the claim, we can assume that he still only has one arm. Therefore, the present-tense version would make more sense—if the meaning being conveyed is about his actual state rather than the conversation itself.

Conversely, if the person with one arm has since died, it would make much more sense to say had—simply because he is no longer alive.

In terms of Dr. Smith, he only told me about your mother last night and no course of treatment will have helped her in the past twenty-four hours. Therefore, if the diagnosis was accurate, she still does have those symptoms.

Using the past or present tense, in this case, depends on whether the focus is on the conversation that happened last night or on the actual condition of your mother.

If I say that Dr. Smith said your mother had those symptoms, you might jump to the wrong conclusion and exclaim, "She's cured?" But if I say that he said she has those symptoms, you'll know that she's still suffering and requires treatment.

However, the actual answer in this example is that both version are correct. It simply depends on what you're trying to relay.

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