1. The WordReference Forums have moved to new forum software. (Details)

I was reading / I read a book during the flight

Discussion in 'English Only' started by mysina, Nov 26, 2011.

  1. mysina Senior Member

    Hello. I would like to ask you about the difference between the following sentences:

    I read a book during the flight.
    I was reading a book during the flight.

    Does the first sentence in past simple mean that I read the whole book and the second sentence in past continuous that I was reading it but I didn´t finish it? Is it possible to say that past simple is used for completed actions and past continuous for incompleted actions? Thanks for your answers.
     
  2. djmc Senior Member

    France
    English - United Kingdom
    It could have this import but not necessarily; there does not seem much difference. If I were asked a question as to what I was doing on the plane, I might answer either.
     
  3. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    In "I read a book during the flight." read is the simple imperfect, so there is no need for the action to have been completed or even be for any particular length of time, merely that it took place in the past.

    In "I was reading a book during the flight." was reading is the continuous imperfect - there is no need for the action to have been completed, but the action was over a period of time in the past.

    As far as I know English verbs do not have both a completed and an incomplete action voice that refers to the object or implies, "to the end" and this sense has to be constructed or another verb used.

    "He drank the beer." could mean (i) "He drank some/half/most/a little of the beer during the flight." OR (ii) "He drank all the beer during the flight." To be precise, we would have to use (i) or (ii)
     
  4. Spharadi Senior Member

    Tel-Aviv
    Spanish
    I think, you can sometimes construct this sense of completion with a preposition. During the flight I drank up a bottle of vine. I don't know if you can use "drink up" in this case.
     
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2011
  5. ribran

    ribran Senior Member

    Austin, Texas
    English - American
    That's a good way of doing it, Spharadi. :thumbsup:

    (I guess you mean wine​, don't you?)
     
  6. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    I guess, in order to say that one completed the action of reading a book, one would have to say:
    I read the whole book through from cover to cover during the flight. :rolleyes:
     
  7. ribran

    ribran Senior Member

    Austin, Texas
    English - American
    That's a little much for me, Wolf. :D

    I read the whole book during the flight​ would suffice.
     
  8. Spharadi Senior Member

    Tel-Aviv
    Spanish
    Thank you very much ribran. Yes, I mean "wine".
     
  9. Aardvark01

    Aardvark01 Senior Member

    Midlands, England
    British English (Midlands)
    While I agree with the others posts that the past simple "I read a book" does not emphatically mean I read the whole book, I would still tend to assume either:
    1/ that I finished the book
    or
    2/ that the issue of whether I read all of it or not is of little consequence.

    I think 1 is the stronger meaning and I would assume both the actions (i. of reading and ii. of finishing the book) to be complete/perfect unless some clause were added to state otherwise. For example: "I read part of a book"/"I read a few chapters of a book".


    With regards to the continuous "I was reading a book" I would expect this tense to imply or introduce some other event which happened at the same time. For example:
    I was reading a book during the flight.
    or
    I was reading a book during the flight when we hit some turbulance.
     
  10. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Yet you wouldn't be able to say the sentence: I read a book during the flight, but I didn't read it. to mean that you attempted to read a book but you didn't read it to the end.
    You could say: I tried reading a book during the flight, but I didn't finish with it.
     
  11. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    And you could say
    "I was reading a book during the flight but I didn't finish with it." We are not able to say how long the process of reading took place. We understand that the action of "reading" was simply in progress.
     
  12. Maharg Senior Member

    Midlands, UK
    English (Britain)
    I think there is a slight difference of emphasis between the two sentences although either is correct as a stand-alone sentence. It might help to show you how I'd use the sentences in responses to different questions.

    If someone asked me 'What did you do to pass the time on your journey?' I would answer 'I read a book during the flight.'
    If someone asked me ' Why didn't you watch the films on the plane?' I would answer 'Because I was reading my/a book during the flight'.

    In agreement with others, I would also use the contiuous past to explain what I was doing when something else happened, for example 'John kept trying to talk to me but I was reading my book during the flight.'

    Hope this helps a little. :)
     
  13. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    I can interpret "did you do" and read as either a completed or not completed action. I've chosen the not completed variant. (Most of the time the default is "not completed.")
    Here, again, I can interpret "didn't you watch" as either a completed or not completed action.
    But in the case of "was reading" I can only interpret it as an action which is not completed.

    I wonder why didn't You choose the reply: 'Because I read my/a book during the flight'.
     
  14. Maharg Senior Member

    Midlands, UK
    English (Britain)
    Yes, that's right, I would say the default is generally 'not completed' for the simple past.

    However, in the case of answering 'Because I was reading my book during the flight' I would answer this way whether I had completed the book or not.

    As to why I didn't choose the alternative reply, I think it is because the 'I was reading' comes more naturally to me as a native speaker in this instance :)
     
  15. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Thank you. :) That's interesting.
     
  16. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    (Please note there are two different words: 'incomplete' and 'uncompleted'.)
    Yes, it is perfectly possible to say that, and important to remember it, though it does not express all the uses of the two tenses.

    Also bear in mind that while the sentence 'I read a book during the flight' does present my action of reading as completed, it does not say that I read the whole book.

    The simple past sees the action as a whole, presenting it as a single spot, so to speak, on the canvas of the past.
    The past continuous sees the action itself as the ongoing background for something else: the canvas, so to speak, on which another fact may be placed.

    Thus:
    'What did you do on the flight?'
    'Oh, I read a book and watched a film'.
    'All pretty ordinary, eh?'
    'Well, no, actually, while I was reading, some drunk got fighting mad and had to be restrained by the crew.'
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2013
  17. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Thank you for the interesting example. :)

    Because it took place in the past. (The completed forms are never used in the present tense in Polish.)
    So I can use the default imperfective to translate it.
     
  18. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    I cannot comment on translation to Polish, but the English 'I read a book during the flight' does mean that the action is complete: I read for a time and then stopped. That action (reading) is over, regardless of whether the book was finished.
     
  19. shorty1

    shorty1 Senior Member

    Korean

    It seems that the speaker is racking their brain and recalling the partial scene(situation) that they can remember.
     
  20. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    All I need to turn a verb into " a perfective or completed form" in Polish is add a suitable prefix. ( The title of this thread demonstrates the difference in form of a verb.)
    Your comment made me come to conclusion that also the imperfective form in Polish " does mean that the action is complete: I read for a time and then stopped. That action (reading) is over, regardless of whether the book was finished."
    Now that's interesting. How can an imperfective form mean that the action is complete?
     
  21. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    It has nothing to do with mental pain. No. It was an attempt to express the imperfective in a Slavonic language.
    It appears that there is no need to use a continuous form in order to achieve it in English.
     
  22. Maharg Senior Member

    Midlands, UK
    English (Britain)
    Yes, I'm sorry, I think I misunderstood the question a little.
     
  23. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    I think some of the difficulty here, at least for me, was the choice of read as the example verb - present tense = read (pron. reed); imperfect tense = read (pron. red)
     
  24. shorty1

    shorty1 Senior Member

    Korean
    Hello wolfbm1.

    I just tried another approach to the question as an example of the possible situations even though I am not sure if it's right and I exaggerated a bit. Sorry.

    Let me introduce the source that seems to have something to do with the orignal question.

    Practical English Usage

    Past progressive

    7. special uses
    Because we often use the past progressive to talk about something that is a 'background', not the main 'news', we can make something seem less important by using this tense. compare:
    I had lunch with the President yesterday. (important piece of news)
    I was having lunch with the president yesterday, and she said... (as if there was nothing special for the speaker about lunching with the president)
    ...

    According to this book, 'I was reading a book during the flight' has to be followed by something important the speaker ultimately wants to inform the listeners of.
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2013
  25. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    No. It does not have to be followed by something important which is the speaker's ultimate message.
    The book's example is one possible use of the past continuous. There are other possibilities too.
     
  26. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    Not knowing Polish, I cannot even confirm that that is true for Polish. It is however true for Latin, in which the imperfect tense would be used to describe an action continued over time, such as reading. The Latin perfect would not be used for that situation, as it would mean in effect 'I have stopped reading'.
     
  27. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    That is also true for my mother tongue. (I can say that because I translated a conversation written in the simple past and I found that for most of the English verbs I chose the imperfective form.)

    A: 'Why didn't you watch the films on the plane?'

    B (:thumbsdown:): 'Because I read my book during the flight'

    The above answer doesn't sound natural for you because in this case it means that you finished reading the book. And because that is not want you wanted to say, you chose the continuous tense:
    B (:thumbsup:): 'Because I was reading my book during the flight'

    Am I right?

    Edit: Can we ask the above question using the past continuous:
    What were you doing during the flight?
    to get the answer: 'Because I was reading my book during the flight.' :confused:
     
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2013
  28. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Now I've got you. Thank you, shorty, for sharing your thoughts. :)
     
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2013
  29. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    Partly right, partly wrong.
    'I read my book during the flight' does not mean that I finished reading the book. It does not say I read it to the end.
    'Finished reading the book' means 'completed the reading of the book', 'read the book to the end'.

    However, 'I read my book during the flight' does mean that my action of reading on this occasion was completed.
    That is why it is not the right tense to answer the question above.

    The correct answer is indeed 'Because I was reading my book'.
    The past continuous here is the background against which I decided not to watch the film.

    At the point when I made that decision (past simple), I was reading (past continuous).
    The past simple presents the decision as a single action against the background of the continued reading.
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2013
  30. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Thank you. That is what I actually suspected.
     
  31. Giorgio Spizzi Senior Member

    Italian
    I can understand your perplexity, Wolf. To one who's accustomed to an accurate expression of aspectuality (perfective/imperfective) it must sound strange — and perhaps a little disturbing — that another language may not be as sensitive as one's mother tongue is to such subtle distinctions.
    The way I see it, the question of completeness (in the sense of having/not having read the whole of the book) is not felt to be so crucial by the average native English-speaking person.
    Let's say that the Simple Past (the Preterite) is an aoristic tense, which rolls into one the whole action of reading the book (either in part or in its totality), whereas the Past Progressive (Continuous) is more interested in the activity and its duration.
    Alas, I realize this is far from being explicative — and convincing: I'm sorry.

    GS
     
  32. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    The confusion over the expression 'I read a book' is due more to the semantic issue.
    In English, neither 'I was reading a book' nor 'I read a book' states that the whole of the book was read. ('I read a book' does not rule out that the whole book was read.)

    On the other hand, 'I read the book' and 'I have read the book' do imply that the whole book has been read.
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2013
  33. Giorgio Spizzi Senior Member

    Italian
    Very good point, wandle.

    We can go as far as saying that the element that disambiguates the meaning is the use of the definite/indefinite article.
    Unfortunately, I suspect wolf won't be able to take advantage of your latest post as Polish — as far as I know — has no articles.

    GS
     
  34. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    Thank you, Giorgio, for your contribution. Yes, it does help.

    I had to check the meaning of "aoristic" though. Wikipedia defines the word aorist as follows: "The word comes from Ancient Greek ahóristos "indefinite", as the aorist was the unmarked (default) form of the verb, and thus did not have the implications of the imperfective aspect, which referred to an ongoing or repeated situation, or the perfect, which referred to a situation with a continuing relevance; instead it described an action "pure and simple".

    I would agree with you that "the Simple Past (the Preterite) is an aoristic tense."

    The source of the problem is that I can use the same imperfective verb in my mother tongue, to translate both mysina's sentences in post#1.
    But I realise the difference in meaning in those two English sentences.
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2013
  35. wandle

    wandle Senior Member

    London
    English - British
    Thanks GS, but the article is not so decisive. 'I read a book' can mean I read the whole book and 'I have read a book' does mean that. For example, 'I have read a book on economics, but I cannot call myself an economist'.
    But I hope he will. That is merely one of many possible hurdles in learning a different language.
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2013
  36. wolfbm1 Senior Member

    Poland
    Polish
    I do understand the difference in usage of the two articles in English.
     

Share This Page