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What is the difference in meaning between the two sentences?

  1. While I was reading a book, I found an interesting article.

  2. While I read a book, I found an interesting article.

I learned that in an ordinary case, we should put 'ing' form in the sentence including 'while'.

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  • There's no difference in meaning.
    – Khan
    Oct 12, 2016 at 15:03
  • @Khan There is a difference in meaning. Why else would English retain two separate forms, the simple past and the past progressive? Oct 14, 2016 at 12:13
  • The first one sounds more natural (reading), because as TRomano pointed out below, it describes the process of reading, whereas to say "while I read a book" subtly implies that you read the entire book in one sitting. Though everyone would still understand your meaning with the second one.
    – soapergem
    Jan 12, 2017 at 23:03

1 Answer 1

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Reading a book is not instantaneous like an explosion, or the blink of an eye, but an activity that requires some time. Nonetheless, when we use the past tense of the verb, as you do in your examples, it normally is understood to mean "to read a written work in its entirety" and not "to read page by page".

I read that book when I was in high school.

Therefore, when we wish to refer to a past act of reading in a manner that emphasizes the ongoing activity, sentence by sentence, page by page, chapter by chapter, we use the continuous:

While I was reading that book I found an article that interested me.

When we wish to refer to the activity of reading without emphasizing its ongoing physical/mental aspect and without the implication of completion, we can use the simple past in conjunction with a word like while which expresses duration:

While she knitted near the fireplace, her sister read a book near the window.

But when we use the simple past in that way, the idea of activity-happening-in-time is absent, or at the very least unexpressed. It is as though we were describing a moment frozen in time, a woodcut, a tableau vivant.

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  • 1
    I was just about to comment on the "I read while she knitted" case, using exactly the same example!
    – JavaLatte
    Oct 12, 2016 at 10:43
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    While she read minds her sister astral projected.
    – TimR
    Oct 12, 2016 at 10:45

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