Are these sentences correct:

Je ne pense pas qu'il ait compris.
Je pense qu'il n'a pas compris.

What is the logic involved or is this another "parce que c'est comme ça" rule.

  • About the position of "ne pas", it is the same thing as "I don't think he did understand" and "I think he didn't understand". Can you develop your question ? Which rule are you talking about ? The place of "ne pas" ? The tense of "avoir" ? – Random Mar 4 '16 at 16:24

Both sentences are correct, but they aren't synonyms. The nuances are the same as their literal English translations.

Je ne pense pas qu'il ait compris.

The second clause is negated: it's a hypothetical. Thus we use the subjunctive mood.

Je pense qu'il n'a pas compris.

The second clause is not a hypothetical. There is some doubt regarding its veracity, but this isn't the relevant issue to choose the mood. Thus we use the indicative mood.

Like in English, the actual meaning of both sentences is that I hold the belief that he hasn't understood to a some level of certainty. The second statement is a stronger-held belief.

A neutral statement would also use the indicative mood:

An explicit expression of uncertainty might use the indicative or the subjunctive depending on the formulation. The following two sentences express about the same level of doubt. The first uses the indicative because it is formally neutral about the statement. The second uses the subjunctive because it is expressing a level of doubt about a hypothetical.

Je ne sais pas s'il a compris.
Je ne suis pas sûr qu'il ait compris.

All I've stated so far are grammatical rules. There's a trend for people to use the indicative instead of the subjunctive, but a French teacher would mark a sentence like « *Je ne pense pas qu'il a compris » as wrong, and it isn't common even in informal speech.

In a question, usage is more variable. Both of these questions are grammatically correct:

Penses-tu qu'il a compris ?
Penses-tu qu'il ait compris ?

The choice of mood conveys the opinion of the speaker. With the indicative, the speaker either implies that they think that he understood or remains neutral. With the subjunctive, the speaker implies that they think that he did not understand.

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  • Indeed, hypothetical is the key word, not doubt. – Stéphane Gimenez Mar 7 '16 at 8:40

Both sentences are correct, but don't exactly carry the same idea. Here, "pense" means "believe". "I don't believe" means I'm not sure. "I believe he has not" is a stronger statement.

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  • I guess that answers my question. Clearly English does not express the nuance. P.S. Why doesn't the verb 'espérer' take a subjunctive? – B. Scholl Mar 5 '16 at 16:35
  • I do think english makes a difference between "I'm not sure you do" and "I'm sure you don't" :-) – Fabrice NEYRET Mar 5 '16 at 21:13
  • Where is the example showing "esperer" ? it does have a subjunctive, like all verbs. Anyway for a lot of verbs the subjunctive forms looks so stranged old-fashioned picky that people won't used it. People accept "que je puisse", "que je fasse", but no longer "que j'espérasse" :-) . The same way that despite we have two main past forms, "passé simple" is used only in litterature (and not the popular one). But this trend is common to all langages. Street people tend to use the present for all forms, comprising past, future, subjuntive. – Fabrice NEYRET Mar 5 '16 at 21:18
  • Can you say: J'espère qu'il est...' And also : 'Je n'espère pas qu'il soit... – B. Scholl Mar 6 '16 at 8:37

Le sens est un peu différent, les règles sont précises:

subjonctif, car forme hypothétique, après ne pas penser:

Je ne pense pas qu'il ait compris.

ou affirmatif, sens plus fort

Je ne pense pas qu'il a compris.

affirmatif obligatoire avec forme positive, sens encore plus fort:

Je pense qu'il n'a pas compris.

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  • Je ne vois pas dans quel contexte « je ne pense pas qu'il a compris » pourrait être correct. – Gilles 'SO nous est hostile' Mar 6 '16 at 15:11
  • @Gilles: J'en vois qu'un et c'est très spécifique à un cas de négation au niveau du langage: « Je ne pense pas qu'il a compris, je pense qu'il est conscient du problème ». – Stéphane Gimenez Mar 7 '16 at 8:25

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