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Sentence A:

Je sais qu’il étudiait à ce moment-là.

Question: In modern spoken French, what happens to étudiait if we change je sais to je ne crois pas or je doute? In other words, how do we express the idea of the imperfect in a sentence where the verb that triggers the subjunctive is in the present tense? Other example: I accept that he was studying at that time.

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No major problem expressing a current opinion on a fact from the past.

The circumstances I propose below are not as clear-cut as what I might make it sound like, and there are certainly cases where more than one option among the following could work. In a live discussion, the possibility to explain in more details what is to be understood or not will remain in most cases.

The subjunctive will only be used when there is a doubt.

To express my opinion over the fact he was studying at that moment, then a simple imparfait of the indicative works:

  • Je (ne) crois (pas) qu’il étudiait à ce moment-là. → I (don’t) believe he was studying at that moment.
  • Je (ne) doute (pas) qu’il étudiait à ce moment-là. → I (wouldn’t) doubt he was studying at that moment.

Opinions on whether the moment of his study was that moment we are referring to (passé composé of the indicative):

  • Je (ne) crois (pas) qu’il a étudié à ce moment-là. → I (don’t) believe he studied at that moment.
  • Je (ne) doute (pas) qu’il a étudié à ce moment-là. → I (wouldn’t) doubt he studied at that moment.

If I believe studying was not really what he was doing at that moment (even in the particular case where he was actually sitting by the book trying to study or pretending he was studying), then the passé of the subjunctive can be used:

  • Je ne crois pas qu’il ait étudié à ce moment-là. → I don’t believe he studied at that moment.
  • Je doute qu’il ait étudié à ce moment-là. → I doubt he studied at that moment.

If I don’t believe the study had even started to occur at that moment we’re talking about, then the passé surcomposé of the subjunctive can be used, though this verbal construction is not used in all parts of the French-speaking world (see here for a good study over the various regions of France, covering a period of 30 years):

  • Je ne crois pas qu’il ait eu étudié à ce moment-là. → I don’t believe he had started studying at that point.
  • Je doute qu’il ait eu étudié à ce moment-là. → I doubt he had started studying at that point.

Or the passé surcomposé of the indicative if there is no doubt:

  • Je ne doute pas qu’il avait eu étudié à ce moment-là. → I have no doubt about the fact he had already studied at that point.

Equivalent form of the previous for the areas where surcomposé is not used:

  • Je ne doute pas qu’il avait déjà étudié à ce moment-là.

If it is known for a fact he was not studying at that time, then one could express various degrees of certainty or doubt over whether or not he would have studied, or rather have been studying (passé of the conditional):

  • Je (ne) crois (pas) qu’il aurait étudié à ce moment-là. → I (don’t) believe he would have studied at that time.
  • Je (ne) crois (pas) qu’il eût étudié à ce moment-là. → I (don’t) believe he would have studied at that time.
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The modern way is

Je doute qu'il ait étudié.

It has to be a subjunctive past tense. Among those, passé composé is the only one in use in modern non-literary French. This forces a present referential for which French never marks an imperfect aspect.


Notice that it also makes it difficult to mark anteriority in the past, such as in the following statement:

Je doute qu'il eût étudié.

In some regions, you may hear a passé surcomposé as a substitute, but it isn't considered standard French.

Je doute qu'il ait eu étudié.

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I think that the phrase of the question's title:

Je doute qu'il étudiât

is erroneous.

The tense of the subjunctive (subjonctif), in a que-clause, is usually controlled by that of the main verb introducing it. The normal sequence is

Primary sequence

Verb introducing Subjunctive

{Present, imperative, future, perfect with have, future perfect} =>

Subjunctive

Present or Perfect

Historic sequence

Verb introducing Subjunctive

{Imperfect, past historic, perfect without have, pluperfect, conditional (perfect)} =>

Subjunctive

Imperfect or Pluperfect

So if the tense in the main phrase is in present it should be, depending on the time sequence, either present subjunctive or perfect.

Je crains qu'il ne vienne = I am afraid that he comes/is coming/will come/will be coming/may come/may be coming.

Je crains qu'il ne soit venu = I'm afraid he has come/has been coming/will have come, may have come.

Thus,

I doubt he was studying.

is translated by

Je doute qu'il ait étudié.

If the verb in the main sentence is, e.g., imperfect,

Je doutais qu'il étudiât

then

I doubted that he was studying.

But, Imperfect Subjunctive is used only for literary purposes. In modern French it would rather be

Je doutais qu'il étudie.

Similarly, instead of the Pluperfect Subjunctive

Je craignais qu'il ne fût venu = I was afraid that he had come

the following structure is normally used

Je craignais qu'il ne soit venu.

Based on my own experience with colloquial French, one usually encounters the Present and Perfect Subjunctive of the French language. Even in academic world, at least in my field: mechanics, mathematics, physics and the like, I barely encountered the so-called literary tenses of the Subjunctive if not at all. Of course in law studies, for instance, may be the situation is different. Nevertheless, it is good idea to know also the usage of the other two forms in order to fully appreciate classic French literature.

Le roi tenait à ce que son autorité fût respectée (St-Exupéry, Le petit prince).

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