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Should it be 'he told me that they had...' or 'he told me that they have...'? The people he was talking about still have the things presently so which would be correct?

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  • Depends on context.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 8, 2018 at 0:21
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    They are both correct but have different meanings. It depends entirely on whether he he was alluding to their present state (they have) or just referring to the situation as it then stood (they had). Nov 8, 2018 at 2:02

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This is not quite straightforward.

The context is reported speech: you are telling someone else what 'he' said. Those words were obviously uttered in the past; you are describing a past event.

Generally, therefore, in reported speech everything that is reported is in the past. So if he actually said "the sun is shining", in reported speech you would say "he said that the sun was shining".

The problem arises if what he said refers to a continuing situation, for example, if what he actually said was "the Earth orbits the Sun" then it might seem a bit odd for you to say, reporting his speech, "he said that the Earth orbited the Sun", because that might seem to cast doubt as to whether that orbiting is still going on.

I spent many years early in my career writing accounts of what happened at meetings of people far more important than me. It was deeply engrained in me in that work that as the reporter of what someone said I am unavoidably describing an event that is wholly in the past, even if what was said might still be true today. It is not the job of the reporter to ascertain whether what someone said was so then might still be true today, but rather just to report what was said.

So, therefore, less confusion is likely to be caused if you stick to the idea that reported speech is wholly in the past. If in any particular case, such as the Earth orbiting the Sun, you wish to point out that it is still true you could insert some comment as in "he said that the Earth orbited the Sun (as no-one today would doubt)".

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Let's break it down. "He told me" is a past sentence. "that" is a connector. "they had something" is a past sentence, in layman's term, a past from past. When you join two past sentences using a connector you use the past verbs.

He told me that they had something is a correct sentence in such situations. When you want to quote someone word to word, then you can use their 100% wordings in double quotes, He told me "They have something".

in short, either you can go with He told me that they had something or He told me "They have something".

P.S. Depending on the context, He told me "They had something" is also correct if the teller is telling something about the past, not present.

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  • Not necessarily. As Chappo says above, if the information given in the past refers to an ongoing situation, it's correct to use 'have'. He told me that they have all the equipment they need for their expedition means that they had it then and still do. Nov 8, 2018 at 9:56

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