I'm trying to understand the grammar of this sentence. As far as I understand it, while in this situation is a temporal conjunction and denotes simultaneity.

Quirke's CGEL says this:

While and the less frequent whilst require that their clause must be durative, but the matrix clause need not be:

They arrived while I was sunbathing.

He cut himself while shaving.

So why is 'he listened' not in progressive? Or is progressive not the requirement, and just a durative verb would do?

Am I right to understand "listened" as a temporal frame for "smiling", and that it denotes a complete event during which something was happening?

Huddleston's CGEL says:

Perfective aspectuality does not exclude duration (perfectivity is not limited to achievements), but it does not express duration, hence does not focus it. The progressive, by contrast, does highlight the duration . . . Where two situations are of the same duration and simultaneous, it is possible to use the progressive for either, both, or neither.

Are these two the same thing, then?

He was smiling while he was listening to the story.

He was smiling while he listened to the story

Is there's a noticeable difference between them?

If anyone could help me understand it and maybe point to the right pages in these books, I'd be very grateful.

  • The verb in the while-clause need not be (but can be) marked with the continuous/progressive tense when it is semantically durative. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 25 '17 at 12:51
  • Note that listen is not only durative but atelic. – StoneyB Aug 25 '17 at 12:54
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo I think I understand what you're saying. Since durative situations take place over a limited period of time, progressive need not be marked unless I need to emphasize the duration? – Alexey Nekrashevich Aug 25 '17 at 13:12

Although all actions occur in time, some can be understood as taking place at a point-in-time while others can be understood as taking place over a span of time.

We prefer

He nicked his chin while shaving.

He fell on his ass while snowboarding.


He nicked his chin while he shaved.

He fell on his ass while he snowboarded.

because when both verbs are cast in the simple past and connected with while, they are presented as occurring in coordination with one another. However, the idea of coordination is not at all what is wanted there.

When we want to say that an action took place at a point in time during another ongoing action, we place the point-in-time action in the simple past and the ongoing action in the progressive:

He nicked his chin while shaving.

He fell on his ass while snowboarding.

If the snowboarder was the downhill equivalent of a rodeo clown, you could say:

He fell on his ass while he snowboarded.

He fell multiple times to make onlookers laugh. And if the man shaving is one of the Three Stooges, and the gag of the skit is that he is unable to shave without cutting himself over and over again, you could say:

He nicked his chin while he shaved.

But we would probably say "kept falling" and "kept nicking".

  • Do when and at the time work the same way? – SovereignSun Aug 25 '17 at 16:56
  • No, it doesn't work the same. When can mean whenever and the simple past can refer to past general practice or habit, which is different from an action taking place uninterrupted over a span of time. Thus, He fell on his ass when he snowboarded could mean that he was a learner and his practice or general habit was to fall on his ass. When I first started out, I fell on my ass when [i.e. whenever] I snowboarded. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 25 '17 at 18:42

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