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Sentence in question:

The Santa Catalina mountains were formed 12 million years ago during a period when the Western North American Continent was being stretched.

I think the sentence should be corrected as

The Santa Catalina Mountains had been formed during a period 12 million years ago when the Western North American Continent was stretching.

Is my correction correct or better?

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What is with the close votes?? –  Jolenealaska Aug 25 at 2:32

3 Answers 3

No, the original is better. "Was being stretched" implies that something (plate tectonics) was stretching North America; "was stretching" implies that it was stretching itself.

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Stretch has three distinct senses.

  • As an intransitive verb it may have either a stative sense, meaning “have physical extension”, or an eventive sense, meaning to “increase one’s own physical extension”.
  • INTR. STATIVE: The Northeast Megalopolis stretches from Boston in the north to Washington in the south.
  • INTR. EVENTIVE: John rose, stretched, and set about making breakfast.
  • As a transitive verb it has the eventive sense “cause the physical extension of [Direct Object] to increase”.

    • TR.: John stretched a sheet over the body.

Stretch is used transitively here, and was being stetched is a passive construction. That makes good sense: the continent is represented as being stretched by external geological forces as opposed to ‘stretching’ by its own efforts or volition.

Was stretching is an active construction, and in the absence of a Direct Object must have an intransitive sense. With an inanimate subject intransitive ‘stretch’ ordinarily has a the stative sense:

The North American continent stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But a stative does not usually accommodate the progressive construction was stretching. Moreover, stative stretch requires that the extension be defined, usually with preposition phrases from X to Y; that is absent here.

That leaves stretch in an eventive sense. That sense is very unusual with an inanimate subject: we say that a person or cat ‘stretches’ (intransitive) upon waking up, but to say that a continent ‘was stretching’ falls very odd on the ear.

I think Was being stretched, meaning “was being caused to increase in physical extension”, is the only likely construction here.

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what would "was stretching" mean? –  Ben Aug 24 at 12:08
    
@Ben It would have to be intransitive eventive, meaning "was increasing its own physical extension", as in "She was stretching to reach the top shelf." –  StoneyB Aug 24 at 12:26
    
does this apply to any other verb? –  Ben Aug 24 at 12:27
    
@Ben Good question. I can't think of one that follows this particular pattern. –  StoneyB Aug 24 at 12:42

It's used colloquially often.

  • "I should have given you the money back, I was being stupid."
  • "She wasn't flirting with you, she was just being friendly."

In your case "was being" is correct. The meanings are different - "was being stretched [by something]" v. "was stretching [on its own]". In particular in the first case it's the transitive verb, and in the second case it's the intransitive.

In general, "was being" is a normal construct.

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