I was just trying to finish some exercises on the section on "Congiuntivo imperfetto" and it confuses me a lot on which tense should I use.

This is one sentence I encountered just now:

Dubitavo che Marta avesse capito ciò che le avevi detto.

My questions are:

  1. Should I use avesse capito or capisse?
  2. If avesse capito should be used because this action happened before Dubitavo, then what about avevi detto? The action avevi detto happened before avesse capito, right? But both avesse capito and avevi detto are at the same tense.


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    Welcome to Italian.SE! I took the liberty to make some small improvements on formatting and grammar, feel free to revert if you feel they change the meaning of the question. – Denis Nardin Jun 16 '19 at 5:27

First, let me clear immediately a misconception: avesse capito and avevi detto are not at the same tense: the first is at the "congiuntivo trapassato", but the second is at the "indicativo trapassato prossimo" (notice that the auxiliary verb is at the "indicativo imperfetto"). The "congiuntivo trapassato" of dire would be avessi detto. Neither of them is at the "congiuntivo imperfetto": that would be capisse and dicessi respectively

That said, let's have a look at the rules about tenses in the subordinates.

The period here can be analized as

Dubitavo (main clause)
che Marta avesse capito ciò (subordinata oggettiva)
che le avevi detto (subordinata relativa)

The tense of the main clause is at the "indicativo imperfetto", and in the first subordinate clause we need to express a sense of anteriority using the subjunctive mood (why we're using the subjunctive mood is a whole other topic althogher). There is a handy table in Serianni's Italiano about this (XIV.55), but the upshot is that to express anteriority with respect to a main clause set in the past we need to use the "congiuntivo trapassato", that is avesse capito.

Now, let's take a look at the second subordinate clause. This is a relative clause ("subordinata relativa"), because che here is a pronoun and not a conjunction (one quick way of recognizing this is to see if you could translate it with who, whom, which, what in English). In this case (when explicating a property of an object) these subordinates are usually at the indicative, as this is. The tense of choice is the indicativo trapassato prossimo, which indicates a further anteriority with respect to the clause it is referring to ("che Marta avesse capito ciò").

In particular here the author wants to emphasize that the act of you saying comes before the act of Marta understanding. If the speaker wanted to express them as simultaneous, they would have used the indicativo imperfetto (that is "...che le dicevi").

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