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Suppose Meursault thought his life would be better without his mother. She lives with him and nags. In other words, Meursault, mired in domestic misery, is thinking about an alternative life, in which his mother does not live with him. A present tense narration of this situation may go:

(A) Meursault pense que sa vie serait mieux sans sa mère.

Question: Which of the following is correct as past tense narration of the same situation (namely, that Meusault was thinking thus yesterday).

(A0') Meursault pensait que sa vie serait mieux sans sa mère.

(A1') Meursault pensait que sa vie aurait été mieux sans sa mère.

Please note Meursault is thinking about his then-current life, not past.

I would like an answer to tell us

  • For each alternative, that it does or does not to express the meaning intended.

  • If they both do, when a speaker would choose to use the one rather than the other.

  • If either one is strictly speaking not acceptable as an expression of the meaning intended, but some speakers may nevertheless use it, why that may be so.

(Some of you may know that this is, substantively, the same question that was part of some older posts. Those posts came under criticism for being too long and not drawing discussion. Thank you for letting me try again this way.)

  • 1
    Since posting this, I learned some useful grammatical terms. The coordination of verbs as between main and subordinate clauses (or any related clauses) is called "sequence of tenses" or "sequence of moods" apparently. Where the main clause verb is present or future tense, the sequence is said to be "primary," and where that verb is past tense we have a "secondary sequence." These terms were very useful in finding discussions on the Web. – Catomic Oct 1 '15 at 6:28
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In the context of a narration, your question is clear and the answer is probably the one you expect:

  • (A0') expresses an opinion about his hypothetical then-current life. (In fact, it could also be about his then-future life).
  • (A1') expresses an opinion about his hypothetical then-past life.

A speaker may avoid the compound tense, but only at the expense of a meaning approximation, relying on the fact that a better past life is generally relevant only to the current/general life.


However notice that this is only true in the case of a standalone sentence in a narration. If you use it as a clause in a bigger sentence, beware that the time referential for the comparison may attach to a different time than the one of “penser”. It becomes a bit complicated, but I think it's relevant to your question.

(X) Je crois qu'il pensait que sa vie serait mieux sans sa mère.
(X') Je crois qu'il pensait que sa vie aurait été mieux sans sa mère.

In such cases, because conditional can be used for both present and past, the time referential for “être mieux” can be either the one of “croire” or the one “penser”. In X the time span for “être mieux” could be “from now onwards” (if croire is the referential), or “from then onwards” (if penser is the referencial) onward. Similarly the time span in X' could be “until now” or “until then”.

The same thing happens if you directly prepend a conjunction, it potentially introduces an additional time referential.

Puisqu'il pensait que sa vie aurait été mieux sans sa mère, […]

In such a sentence the clause that contains the compound tense may match the meaning you are after. Interactions of time referentials can become quite complicated sometimes. These tricky sentences may have different interpretations.

  • I want to go out and shout into the sky for joy! Thanks! I found X and X' very instructive too. For the "Puisqu'il" sentence, are we expecting something like "il voyage plus" (to be away from his mother) to take the place of "..."? That would explain to me how the conjunction provides a present-tense reference frame: by anticipating a present-tense verb. – Catomic Sep 30 '15 at 14:52
  • Your X' also solves the mystery of the original sentence from Camus: "Il y avait longtemps que j’étais allé à la campagne et je sentais quel plaisir j’aurais pris à me promener s’il n’y avait pas eu maman." The novel is a first-person narration, and there is a constant, implicit "je dis." It is this "je dis" (just like "croire" in X') that provides a present-tense reference frame to "j'aurais pris" and "il n'y avait pas eu." – Catomic Sep 30 '15 at 14:58
  • If you knew how many questions it took me to get here! This is fantastic! Because your explanation is "deep grammar" it solves the same questions in English and German too, into which the Camus sentence has been translated with mirroring structures. – Catomic Sep 30 '15 at 15:04
  • About the “il voyage plus”: yes it's the idea, although meaning-wise to avoid a time gap I'd rather use another past event that happens after the first. For example “il décida de voyager” or “il a décidé de voyager” (technically the latter is present, yet already done). – Stéphane Gimenez Oct 1 '15 at 9:24
  • Indeed I suppose most complications come from the fact that the hierarchy of time references does not necessarily follow the structure of sentences. Happy to know it helped you. – Stéphane Gimenez Oct 1 '15 at 9:29
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I think A0' and A1' don't mean exactly what you wish. Reading the sentence alone implies (M will stand for Meursault) :

M imagines what would be his life without her, but it's not as good as first expected.

Where A1' has a stronger meaning of "but it's not", and talks about his past life.
Whereas A0' talks about his actual life.

So if the meaning you wish is different from this one, you have to complete the sentence A0' or have a strong context to make it clear. The fact that M wishes the situation to be true must be clear.

EDIT :
About "he don't like his life", this is just an example, to be easier to understand. I removed it so there is no confusion...

About the meaning of A0' and A1', the problem is that a sentence can have multiple meaning, depending on the context.
I say that without context, one won't understand it the way you wish.
So you HAVE to add context to make the meaning clear.
Also, the "but it's not" is implied by the past tense, because we understand that he doesn't think so anymore, so that he was wrong. You have to add context to say "I don't know what he thinks now".

  • Thank you for the answer. But are you saying that French speakers have no way of simply expressing an evaluation of a hypothetical situation? They cannot say simple things like, "He thought life would better without her" without also implying, "But it's not as good as first expected." I find it hard to accept. I don't need to be a French speaker to be incredulous here. – Catomic Sep 30 '15 at 8:37
  • Also, A0' or A1' don't imply that Meusault don't like his life, only that he thought it would better under different circumstances. I am completely sure of this knowing as little French as I do. – Catomic Sep 30 '15 at 8:43
  • @Catomic I edited my answer to develop what you're pointing out – Random Sep 30 '15 at 8:50
  • I am really, rally sorry to be challenging like this. But I don't see how the past tense can imply that the stated thing was no longer true. When it is said (in French), "Paris was the most populous French city in 1900," does that imply it was not so in 2015? When you say (in French), "As a child I thought my mom's cooking was the best," does that imply you don't think so any more? If you say yes, that would be an amazing thing I learn about French. – Catomic Sep 30 '15 at 9:13
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    In my opinion, it does. For Paris, if it was still the case, you would say "Paris is the most populous French city since 1900", which implies it is still now. Using past implies something happened that makes it not true (but once again, it only has sense if there is no context). About your childhood, the sentence implies you now know it's wrong, because even if her cook was very good, one may cooking even better... (and even there, I say «was very good» because you may not eat it anymore right ?). I don't think it is the same in any language. Don't you feel the same meaning ? – Random Sep 30 '15 at 9:40
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Just to guide anyone trying to answer the question, I will write a hypothetical answer to show the kind of things I am looking for.

HYPOTHETICAL ANSWER

A0' correctly expresses the situation described, i.e. Meursault e.g. yesterday thinking his then current life would be better without his mother. It is because French conditionals do not "backshift" exactly the same way English "subjectives" do not. (E.g. "I think it would be better without her." "I thought it would be better without her.")

A1' does not express the situation described. What A1' express is that Meursault e.g. yesterday thought that his past life, e.g. his childhood, would have been better without his mother.

END OF HYPOTHETICAL ANSWER

I am not saying the answer has to go like the above. It might say the opposite thing, for instance. But I am saying you have to answer the question that was asked. And you have to understand the question. If you'd like, you can even provide an answer by commenting on, denying or affirming, the hypothetical one above.

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