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Please explain to me which is the correct usage.

Balu had worked in several other States when he decided to work in Kolkata.

Or

Balu had been working in several other States when he decided to work in Kolkata.

I think we should use past perfect continuous here but I'm not sure of it. Do we need any more context to decide this?

I've seen many explanations regarding this topic here and also on google, still unsure of which tense to use in which case.

We use the Past Perfect to show that something started in the past and continued up until another action in the past.

We use the Past Perfect Continuous to show that something started in the past and continued up until another time in the past for a time reference. And it can be used to talk about actions or situations that were in progress at a certain point of time in the past

Do we certainly need time reference to use past perfect continuous?

If I replace "several other states" with a single state say Delhi shall I use past perfect continuous?

And one more question is can we use past perfect when the time reference was given in the sentence like "Balu had worked in Delhi for 5 years when he decided to work in Kolkata"?

It's very confusing topic. Could you please shed light upon the subject and explain to me a simpler way about how to use these tenses?

  • 2
    Your first example is better for what you probably want to say, because it implies nothing about whether Balu worked in several other states consecutively or concurrently. Since Past Perfect Continuous implies recency and/or relevance to time of utterance, it much more strongly implies that what Balu had been doing (working in other states) represents a single activity. That's to say, your amended version would only be more appropriate if Balu's (one and only) previous occupation involved interstate work, not that he'd had a succession of different jobs in different states. – FumbleFingers Sep 16 '16 at 17:27
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    @Anonymous: Even if it was just one other place, I'd guess most native speakers wouldn't bother with the more complex tense unless the fact of Balu having been working there somehow had relevance to his subsequent decision to work in Kolkata. But even then I think I'd be inclined to simply change your when to before and stick with the simple past. Unlike many non-native speakers, I'm not looking for opportunities to use complex tenses - quite the opposite in fact, since given the chance I tend to favour simple tenses wherever I can get away with them. – FumbleFingers Sep 16 '16 at 18:37
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    @Anonymous: I didn't mean that you shouldn't learn about perfect and continuous verb forms, or never use them. Just that at your level (which is relatively advanced) it would probably help you more to think in terms of how you can avoid using a complex tense, rather seeking to justify it. Your example is a typical case where I don't think when works very well anyway. But if you change it to before the temporal sequence is obvious, and doesn't need to also be reflected by tense. So you can happily use simple past and forget about past perfect and past perfect continuous. – FumbleFingers Sep 17 '16 at 12:28
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    @Anonymous: Any test which claims that past perfect is "correct" for the example you've given is simply a bad test (not just because of when rather than before and failure to provide simple past as the obvious option). That's why I often make the point that learners are being badly served by incompetent teachers and examiners. But I won't keep arguing here. – FumbleFingers Sep 17 '16 at 13:05
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    @FumbleFingers Yes, I strongly agree with you. I felt the same in many instances. It happens with Everything( not only English). I had many instances of this type confusion in English but couldn't find anyone to clear this. Finally I found this site really helpful. – Omkar Reddy Sep 17 '16 at 13:28
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Multiple states

We use a continuous verb-form to describe something that has been going on for some time.

If Balu had been going back-and-forth, back-and-forth between all these states for a long time, then a continuous tense is required.

If Balu worked first in one state, then in another state, then in another state, etc... working in all of the states (except maybe the last one) is completed, so a simple tense (in this case past perfect) is sufficient.

When in doubt, use the simplest tense that works: in this case, if he's not been going back-and-forth, it's past perfect.

Single state

Balu had worked in Delhi when he decided to work in Kolkata
[---Delhi----][---Not Delhi--- decision]

At some time before he decided to work in Kolkata, Balu had worked in Delhi. He was not working in Delhi when he made the decision. Past perfect without for: completed.

Balu had worked in Delhi for five years when he decided to work in Kolkata
[---Delhi for five years----decision]

Balu in worked in Delhi for five years and was still in Delhi when he made the decision. Past perfect with for: not completed.

Balu had been working in Delhi when he decided to work in Kolkata
[---Delhi----][---not Delhi---- decision ]
or [----------Delhi---------------decision-----]

Balu had worked in Delhi (and may have still been doing so) when he made the decision. Past perfect continuous, without for, possibly completed. This one is probably best avoided: it is ambiguous and so doesn't sound right.

Balu had been working in Delhi for five years when he decided to work in Kolkata
[---Delhi for five years---- decision]

Balu had worked in Delhi continuously for five years, and was still doing so when he made the decision. Past perfect continuous with for, not completed.

And just for completeness...

Balu was working in Delhi when he decided to work in Kolkata
[---Delhi----decision]

Balu had been working in Delhi for an unspecified time, and was still doing so, when he made the decision. Past continuous, not completed.

Note that you can't use for and when at the same time with past continuous.

Balu was working in Delhi for five years ... past continuous
Balu worked in Delhi for five years ... past simple
[---Delhi for five years----] now

Balu had been working in Delhi for an unspecified time, but doesn't any more Past continuous or past simple with for.

  • What if I replace "several other states" with a single state say Delhi? Now shall I use past perfect continuous? And one more doubt is can we use past perfect when the time reference was given in the sentence like "Balu had worked in Delhi for 5 years when he decided to work in Kolkata"? Please explain it. – Omkar Reddy Sep 16 '16 at 17:39
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    Ah, now that's a completely different question, and it's not suitable for a quick response in a comment.. Please edit your question and add this as a second part to your question, and then I will update my answer. – JavaLatte Sep 16 '16 at 17:48
  • I've edited my question. Please check it. – Omkar Reddy Sep 16 '16 at 18:16
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    Anonymous: And I my answer. – JavaLatte Sep 16 '16 at 18:25
  • I had doubts about past continuous and past simple with for-time phrase. Now it's clear. – V.V. Sep 16 '16 at 18:57
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In this case, you could use either tense to convey the same meaning, but there are subtle differences.

Using the past perfect continuous tense, it could mean that Balu was working in multiple states simultaneously and that he was now also going to work in Kolkata.

If I replace "several other states" with a single state say Delhi shall I use past perfect continuous?

Replacing "several other states" with "Delhi" doesn't change anything grammatically.

And one more doubt is can we use past perfect when the time reference was given in the sentence like "Balu had worked in Delhi for 5 years when he decided to work in Kolkata"?

Yes, you can do that.

Now, if you want to make your sentences sound a little more natural, you might say:

Balu had worked in several other states before he decided to work in Kolkata.

Balu had already worked in several other states when he decided to work in Kolkata.

or even:

Balu had already worked in several other states before he decided to work in Kolkata.

You are contrasting two ideas and these changes make that contrast more emphatic. They work with both tenses:

Balu had been working in several other states before he decided to work in Kolkata.

Balu had already been working in several other states when he decided to work in Kolkata.

Balu had already been working in several other states before he decided to work in Kolkata.

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