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Past Simple or Past Continuous ?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by marcin k, Oct 25, 2004.

  1. marcin k Senior Member

    Poland, polish
    hello everyone, I need some of your help. I've just come across the following sentence on an English learning site, the sentence was meant to illustrate the use of Past Simple Tense: " We sat on the beach all day ". Shouldn't it rather be the Past Continuous here ? If both are possible, what's the difference ?
     
  2. garryknight Senior Member

    Kent, UK
    UK, English
    It's a simple tense because it's not a compound tense. Simple tenses consist of one verb, e.g. 'sat', while compound tenses consist of one main verb and up to 3 (in English) auxiliary verbs, e.g. 'had sat' where 'sat' is the main verb and 'had' is the auxiliary verb from 'to have'. The past continuous tense is a compound tense and looks like this: "We were sitting on the beach all day". The construction 'we sat' is, indeed, the simple past tense.
     
  3. jacinta Senior Member

    California
    USA English
    Either tense would be correct. The actual meaning of the sentence depends on the rest of the context. For example:

    We were sitting on the beach when my brother came and bothered us.

    We sat on the beach all day and did nothing.

    What were you doing yesterday at this time?
    I was doing the same thing I am doing now. Nothing.

    What did you do yesterday?
    I did nothing.

    I know this isn't a grammatical explanation but it shows some uses. Hope it helps.
     
  4. quehuong Senior Member

    Vietnam, Vietnamese
    We sat on the beach all day vs. We were sitting on the beach all day.

    Yes, they are both possible and grammatical, but without context and elaboration, the prior is more likely to happen than the latter. The progressive aspect highlights the duration and emphasizes the duration of the activity more than the perfective aspect (e.g. Simple Past).
     
  5. marcin k Senior Member

    Poland, polish
    Thanks for your explanations, I simply thought that the Past Continous is the only proper tense to be used with time expressions like ' all day, all morning, all afternoon ' etc. To me it seemed that filling a period of time with an action requires a Continous tense to show the idea of continuity throughout the specified period. If someone could come up with some more examples justifying the use of Past Simple with time expressions containing the word ' all ' I'll be most grateful. :)
     
  6. garryknight Senior Member

    Kent, UK
    UK, English
    I sat in the coffee shop all morning.
    We spent all afternoon in the amusement arcade.
    They shopped all day last Thursday.
    She spent all of last month in Paris.
    He lived in London all his life.
     
  7. quehuong Senior Member

    Vietnam, Vietnamese
    Ms. Jacinta, please allow me to use your example to show that the adverb phrase all day plays an important role in determining the soundness of a sentence.

    1. We were sitting on the beach when my brother came and bothered us.

    versus

    2. We were sitting on the beach all day when my brother came and bothered us. (Would this sentence be grammatical with the insertion of the adverb phrase all day??)


    --------------

    This is what I got from The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston and Pullum:

    Progressive aspectuality involves the following features, two of which are strong implicatures rather than part of the meaning proper:

    i. The situation is presented as in progress, ongoing, at or throughout the T(r).
    ii. The situation is viewed imperfectively.
    iii. T(r) is a mid-interval within T(sit). [implicature]
    iv. The situation is presented as durative.
    v. The situation is presented as dynamic.
    vi. The situation is presented as having limited duration. [implicature]

    T(r) = time referred to
    T(sit) = time of situation


    ---------------
     
  8. jacinta Senior Member

    California
    USA English
    The example "We were sitting on the beach when my brother came and bothered us" would not make sense (to me) if we added all day. All day does nothing for the sense of the situation. We don't care how long we were doing the action. We were sitting and then something suddenly happened to change it.

    I would say that when talking about an action that lasts all day or all month, the simple past sounds better, as garry's examples show. The continuous past begs for more information. We were sitting...and then what happened?? We were standing...yes, yes, and then what??? We kissed!! Finally, the end!

    Does this make sense? I'm afraid all I can tell you (as I'm not an English grammarian) is what sounds best and makes the most sense. Sometimes grammar books are very helpful but they can also be so confusing.
     
  9. quehuong Senior Member

    Vietnam, Vietnamese
    I think I know what you mean (all day = a period, a duration). But feelings tell me that the use of the progressive tense in this case yearns for more details to make the sense of the sentence or context less incomplete. I'd be satisfied with just We sat on the beach all day long, but I'd wouldn't be satisfied with just We were sitting on the beach all day long. I wonder what others think about these two sentences.

    --------------------

    According to the Cambridge Grammar that I mentioned above and a grammar book of Quirk's, sit belongs to the verb class of STANCE. The Cambridge says that this verb class is somewhere between states and activities, and the Quirk says that this class is between the stative and dynamic categories. Here are Quirk's examples:

    1a. James lives in Copenhagen. [permanent residence]
    1b. James is living in Copenhagen. [temporary residence]

    2a. The city lies on the coast. [perm. position]
    2b. People were lying on the beach. [temp. po.]

    3a. His statue stands in the city square. [perm. po]
    3b. He is standing over there. [temp. po]


    A little note:

    The Quirk (1985) says that all, yesterday, overnight ect belong to adverb category, but the Cambridge (2002) says that they have excluded all, yesterday, tonight, today etc from the adverb category.


    If the Cambridge is right, then all day is not an adverb phrase but a noun phrase instead. No wonder why I kept making adverbial substitutions and still couldn't figure out why some would make the progressive aspect more complete than others.

    1. We were sitting on the beach contentedly.
    2. We were sitting on the beach comfortingly.
    3. We were sitting on the beach deliberately.
    4. We were sitting on the beach also.

    5. We were sitting on the beach this morning. [?]
    6. We were sitting on the beach all year. [?]
    7. We were sitting on the beach today. [?]

    All of these 7 sentences are grammatical, but the last three tickle me just like the We were sitting on the beach all day.

    From the Quirk under the topic of adverbs:

    They stayed up all night long. [Simple Past]

    [Why not "They were staying up all night long"? <<= This one is not in the text.]

    ============

    Mr. MK,

    I don't think I've helped you very much.:( Even I can't explain this very well to myself without a larger context in which the sentences appear.
     
  10. quehuong Senior Member

    Vietnam, Vietnamese
    Ms. Jacinta,

    Thanks for the explanation!:) I was reading the big grammar books while you were posting the above message. I agree that grammar books cannot explain everything and they can be confusing at times.
     
  11. garryknight Senior Member

    Kent, UK
    UK, English
    Maybe this is why some grammar books refer to the continuous past as the 'narrative' tense. They also have a name for the simple past, but I can't remember it at the moment.
     
  12. marcin k Senior Member

    Poland, polish
    I should like to thank both Jacinta and Quehuong as your explanations did help me indeed understand the issue better. The way I see it now is that there are some verbs that work well with Past Progressive and expressions containing the word ' all ' while other verbs do not, especially those stative ones. Sitting isn't actually doing anything. If I'm right then a sentence like " I was working all day yesterday " should sound quite all right, does it ? And one more thing that comes to my mind : if I do say : " They were sitting on the beach all day yesterday ... " doesn't it imply some sort of criticism ? Like sitting on the beach all day isn't the best way to spend one's time or something like that.
    What I have learnt thanks to your posts is as follows :
    Using Past Progressive with " all day, all afternoon " etc is best justified when one means to supplement it straight away with some special information concerning either the manner or other circumstances of the activity and Past Progressive is perhaps meant to build some little background onto which this special information is then stuck and may seem more meaningful in such environment created by Past Progressive. Otherwise, when simply reporting on what action was performed just for the very sake of knowing what that action was the Past Simple seems a better choice. Do I get it right ?

    If I do, then these sentences should also sound pretty normal to you :

    We watched TV all afternoon and then we went to bed.
    We were watching TV all afternoon sitting comfortably in armchairs.
    We were watching TV all afternoon because it was raining outside.

    Would it be all right if I wrote all the three above sentences in Past Simple ?
    Would you rather write the second and the third ones in Past Simple or in Past Continuous ? Do you ever use Past Continuous with ' all-bla bla ' expressions, or do you simply use Past Simple in such cases ? Give me the most likely contexts for Past Continuous in the way you feel it. I'm not a native of English so I have to constantly build the ' feeling ' of this language also by testing my theories about the language, the more so that I teach this language to people and how am I supposed to successfully teach someone something that I myself do not fully understand, or ' feel ' if you like. You gotta feel it and be able to definy it before you can teach it to others, especially that my students might always ask me the same questions that I am now asking you ... :)
     
  13. jacinta Senior Member

    California
    USA English
    I know this form of the verb as the progressive form. I guess that's the same as continuous. To help you understand, let's look at the present progressive tense:

    What are you doing?
    I'm watching TV.

    In this example, we are talking about the current situation, right now. The past progressive works the same way. You are describing a situation in a fixed time period.

    What were you doing at 7:00 last night?
    I was watching TV.

    I realize too late that I should have copied your quote into this, but I'll explain your sentences that you wrote:

    We watched TV all afternoon and then we went to bed. Yes, this is fine
    We were watching TV all afternoon sitting in comfortable armchairs. This is also fine. This is a descriptive sentence that would be included in a narrative context of some sort, maybe in answer to a question "What were you doing yesterday during the rainstorm? -A fixed period of time-

    We were watching TV all afternoon because it was raining outside. I have trouble with this one. It should be: We watched TV all afternoon because it was raining outside.

    More examples:

    I was going to tell you my secret recipe for strudel but, sorry, I lost it.

    I was driving to the store when I got stopped for speeding.

    They were reading too slowly for me. I got bored.

    When I arrived home he was raking the leaves off the driveway.

    Really? He was sleeping on the couch when I left.

    So, it seems that the continuous form needs to be completed or stopped, if you will, with a definite action, as if putting a period on the sentence.

    You gotta= You've got to
     
  14. Beverly Junior Member

    France
    USA English
    Maybe this brief explanation will help? THe 3 ways we contrast these tenses. past simple Vs past continuous

    I. He unlocked the door turned on the light and sat down.
    successive actions 1nd/ unlocked the door 2nd/Turned on the light 3/sat down

    2.The sun was shining the bird were singing and I was reading a book.
    Actions happening at the same time these actions are long actions the scene is discribed!

    3. I was reading my book when the phone rang. The longer action was interupted by a short action;

    We constantly contrast these tenses this way, it helps know which action started first, which one is a short or lasting. It's your choice of how you tell the story!!
    Just remember one thing when you use "always" with and "ING" form it can have the conotation of being fed up! She is always looking in the mirror! She was always looking in the mirror when she was here!

    Hope that helps!!!
     
  15. Beverly Junior Member

    France
    USA English
    Maybe this brief explanation will help? THe 3 ways we contrast these tenses. past simple Vs past continuous

    I. He unlocked the door turned on the light and sat down.
    successive actions 1nd/ unlocked the door 2nd/Turned on the light 3/sat down

    2.The sun was shining the birds were singing and I was reading a book.
    Actions happening at the same time these actions are long actions the scene is discribed!

    3. I was reading my book when the phone rang. The longer action was interupted by a short action;

    We constantly contrast these tenses this way, it helps know which action started first, which one is a short or lasting. It's your choice of how you tell the story!!
    Just remember one thing when you use "always" with and "ING" form it can have the conotation of being fed up! She is always looking in the mirror! She was always looking in the mirror when she was here!

    Hope that helps!!!
     
  16. angstyartemis New Member

    English
    Following are some of the differences between the two tenses:

    1. The simple past is used to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past. Sometimes, the speaker may not actually mention the specific time, but he/she does have one specific time in mind
    e.g.: I saw a movie yesterday.
    He washed his car.

    Past Continuous is used to describe what was being done at a specific moment in the recent past
    e.g.: Yesterday at this time I was watching Black Swan.

    2. Past Simple is used to list a series of completed actions (completed one after the other) in the past:
    e.g.: I took a shower, got dressed, brushed my hair and stayed in my room.

    The Past Continuous, when used with two actions in the same sentence, expresses the idea that both actions were happening at the same time. The actions are parallel.
    e.g.: Were you listening while I was talking?

    3. Past Simple is used when the action starts and stops in the past. You can take clues from words such as: for two years, for five minutes, all day, all year, etc.
    e.g.: I did not stay till the end of the party.
    My grandfather was in Berlin at the time of the war. (The war is over and he is no longer in Berlin)

    Past Continuous is used to indicate that a longer action in the past was interrupted by another action (also in the past)
    e.g.: I was listening to Guns and Roses when my mother switched off the player to claim my undivided attention.

    4. Simple past is used when the time is asked about a past action
    e.g.: When did you meet the writer of Shantaram?
    What time did Aunt Agatha arrive in the morning?

    Past Continuous is used when asking about an action that was happening at a given time.
    e.g.: What were you doing at 7.30 pm yesterday?

    5. Past Simple is used in stories, especially children’s stories or fairy tales.
    e.g.: Once upon a time in a kingdom far far away, lived a king and a queen and their daughter, the beautiful Princess Fiona.

    Past continuous is used when a series of parallel actions are used to vividly describe the atmosphere at a particular time in the past
    e.g.: When I walked into the office, several people were busily typing, some were talking on the phones, some were running in and out of the conference room…
     
  17. Barbarella02 Junior Member

    Czech
    So now I am completely mistaken. My textbook gives two examples of how present continuous is used:

    Megan was driving all morning.
    They were walking all day from morning till night.

    There is no contex provided. But how come they are in past continuous tense?
     

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