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Source (The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini)

I am trying to read the book and don't understand how to use past continuous here:

When the sun dropped low behind the hills and we were done playing for the day, ...

I know we use was/were + present participle. So why does the above use -> were + past participle + present participle?

And the second sentence:

Hassan was born in the winter of 1964, just one year after my mother died giving birth to me.

Why don't we use "was" here?

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Welcome - this is my first answer here too!

The fact that the sentence uses were + past participle should suggest that it's actually not using the past continuous. It's the past perfect. "When we were done, we ate dinner" means that at some point in the past, we ate dinner. Before that, even farther in the past, is when we were done with something. "We were done playing, then we ate dinner" demonstrates the order of events.

Playing, in this context, is acting as a gerund. This means it acts like a noun, and in this particular sentence is the direct object of do. It's saying what we finished doing.

In the second example, there's no to be verb because it's using the simple past tense with the verb died, instead of the past continuous. Giving birth to me is a descriptive phrase that explains how the mother died. It's using the present participle as an adjective.

Keep in mind that that's what the present participle is for; it's to act like an adjective. "She was speaking" has the same sentence structure as "She was smart" -- speaking and smart are both acting as adjectives.

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  • @Rompey The idiom be done does not require with before gerunds: "I'm done answering your questions". This implies that up until the present you have been gerunding. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 3 '16 at 21:24
  • @Rompey To me at least it would make for an interesting question, and one which I'm not sure has been asked here. There are questions about "done with sth," but none (that I can find, anyway) on the status of "with" in those expressions where the gerund is the object. – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '16 at 21:44
  • As I have replied on another question, I believe that "be done" and "be done with" are different idioms. – Colin Fine Oct 3 '16 at 23:28
  • It is neither continuous nor perfect. The continuous requires be + X-ing; the perfect in modern English requires have + pp. This has be + done + X-ing, so it doesn't match either pattern. It is the simple past of the idiom "be done X-ing", where done behaves as an adjective rather than a pp. – Colin Fine Oct 3 '16 at 23:31
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When the sun dropped low behind the hills and we were done playing for the day.

This is an incomplete adverbial phrase that modifies when something else happened in the past, but it's also complicated because it's a compound of other phrases. The basic structure is "When A happened and B happened", and the verb in the second part is "to be done" (meaning "to finish"). "The sun dropped low and we finished (doing something)."

In this case "playing" is what is called a "gerund". A gerund is actually a noun made from a verb and not the past continuous tense.

Hassan was born in the winter of 1964, just one year after my mother died giving birth to me.

Here, "giving" is another gerund that is part of an adverbial phrase that modifies "died" by saying how she died. Some examples:

When did you get that bruise? (I got it) While moving furniture yesterday.

How did you get that bruise? (I got it) From accidentally kicking the piano.

How did you learn to swim? (I learned) By playing in the ocean as a boy.

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