So I had an exam recently where in one problem we had to complete sentences with verbs in either past simple or past continuous tense.
One of the sentences was something like this:

He _______ in France when she first met him. (live)

Most of us wrote "was living" there but our teacher said that the only correct answer is "lived" because this sentence states facts.
That was the only explanation she gave and she dismissed our argument that there's no context suggesting that we can't emphasize the first half of the sentence, but she said we can't do that, this sentence is clearly just stating facts, we just can't understand the difference between past simple and past continuous.
Now, to my knowledge and according to everything I read on the web, both can be correct, the difference is the emphasis and/or the exact meaning.
Am I missing something?

  • 8
    Your teacher is wrong. Maybe not grammatically so, but it's very weird to say what your teacher suggests. Almost sounds like meeting her was what made him live in France.
    – minseong
    Apr 15, 2017 at 20:06
  • If the only information is the example as written, then "lived" is the best choice. Using "was living" is OK, but implies that there is other time-related context.
    – user3169
    Apr 15, 2017 at 20:17
  • 2
    @user3169 I disagree
    – minseong
    Apr 15, 2017 at 20:46
  • 8
    “was living” and “lived” are both fine here. Neither one sounds off in normal conversation.
    – Ry-
    Apr 16, 2017 at 5:45
  • It agrees with met. Otherwise it would be "had first met", though it is still grammatical.
    – user26439
    Apr 16, 2017 at 19:36

3 Answers 3


I have spoken English for 50 years and I can say authoritatively that the idiomatic way to express what appears to be the meaning, that he happened to be a resident of France at some particular time in the past, is

He was living in France when...

Imagine it were some other verb, "He was eating his lunch when..." "He was wearing a jacket when..."

The only reason to use simple past would be to imply some causal connection:

He lived in France until she met him; they quickly married and returned to Britain.

He lived in France during the summer, and returned to Tuscany when the weather got cold.

Even in those sentences, you could say "He was living."

"Living in France" is almost a phrasal adjective. Compare

He was very young when she met him.

He was polite when she met him.

Your teacher is mistaken. There is nothing about the continuous that depends on the factual nature of the sentence -- it is about aspectuality and causality.

  • 1
    Not "had been living"?
    – user541686
    Apr 15, 2017 at 16:24
  • 5
    @Mehrdad -- a perfect tense denotes a completed action, so if he "had been living" somewhere, the implication is that he then moved somewhere else, completing ("perfecting") the action. If a time period was included ("he had been living there for five years"), it might be that just the time period was complete; he had lived there five years when she met him ... and then he lived there 10 more years. Apr 15, 2017 at 17:31

Both are 100 percent grammatically correct, but might be used in slightly different contexts. Simple past tense might be preferred for simply stating the fact with no mention of any events that occurred during the time in question:

Ex. "He lived in France when she first met him. Or perhaps it was Switzerland...after all, it was 40 years ago and my memory isn't what it used to be."

Past continuous might be preferred in the context of discussing events that occurred during that time:

Ex. "He was living in France when she first met him. He had recently broken up with a girl who worked in a Paris bistro, and a whirlwind romance ensued."

Recall that the fundamental purpose of the past continuous verb tense is to allow one to refer to events that occurred during the time frame being discussed and give those events some background context.

As usual, context is king.

PS Your teacher is 100 percent wrong, and is either (a) a nonnative speaker, (b) incompetent, or (c) both.


I have to say your teacher is correct although erred in giving a very short, blunt but factual explanation. There are 2 short statements in the sentence but neither depends on the other; she didn't wait for him to move to France so she could meet him and he didn't move to France with the expectation of meeting. Maybe they did but we will never know. All we know is that He lived in France and She first met him (back then). Simple past. However, languages are alive and especially English since it is so widely spoken. When I first read the question I immediately answered it with "was living" which is correct as well. I believe Malvolio's "aspectuality and causality" makes the case for both. I have been teaching English for 40 years. Mark

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