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The following two example were taken from F2F course workbook with answers included but there is no reasoning in the workbook. In both of them, I feel the past simple and the past continuous are possible, but the workbook chooses one tense only. By the way, one example has past simple while the other has the past continuous.

In your opinion what is the answer to each one and most importantly tell why you chose one tense over the other?

Note that there are two action one could be progressing and the other is short that interrupts the progression or just happen at a point during the progression of the other. If this is the case then non-short action would be the continuous.

The situation might not be as described above. It could be two complete actions (events) that could be described as one follows another like in narrative mode. This would suit the past simple. I don't know if this is true but in the past simple sometimes there is a cause-effect relationship between the two events. I know that in past perfect you can use past simple for the two events if the order is clear esp. with after/before. With for/because the order is clear but you bump into the possibility of using the continuous tense if you could interpret one action as continuous not as a completed event.

Sentence 1:

In 1959, a teacher threw a 16-year-old Jimi Hendrix out of school because he (held/was holding) the hand of a white girl in his class.

Sentence 2:

Fans (queued/were queuing) overnight at a Hollywood music shop for the chance to get Lady Gaga's autograph. While they were waiting, Gaga saw their tweets. She immediately ordered 80 takeaway pizzas and sent them to her fans in case they were hungry.

Update: Adding more context to Gaga's text after reading DT's comments below. Hope it might help get better guess. As for the first text that is all the context there is. Note that Gaga's text doesn't start with a point in time as compared to the first one, i.e. 1959. This is in case it might help.

  • I would prefer using past continuous (he was holding the hand ...) in sentence 1, because using past simple will make it sounds like he held some white girl's hand habitually. (If you change because to after, I think held will be more appropriate. It should also be more appropriate than past perfect too.) – Damkerng T. Dec 31 '13 at 4:06
  • I think you can use either queued or were queuing in sentence 2, depending on the way you want to narrate the scene. If you were to write it as a news, I think queued would be more appropriate. However, if it were an anchor reporting the news, I think were queuing would be more appropriate. I personally prefer were queuing. Perhaps I watch CNN too much. :) – Damkerng T. Dec 31 '13 at 4:11
  • You may want to read the update DT. – learner Dec 31 '13 at 4:18
  • In that case, I would prefer queued more, to establish the scene that the remaining of the story happened on. (Now I think it can apply to either journalist's writing or anchor's reading.) – Damkerng T. Dec 31 '13 at 4:23
  • Could you explain more about establishing the scene of a story? Are there different styles? esp. with past and continuous forms. – learner Dec 31 '13 at 4:38
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In sentence 1, I would prefer using past continuous (he was holding the hand ...), because using past simple will make it sounds like he held some white girl's hand habitually. (Note: If you change because to after, I think held will be more appropriate. It should also be even more appropriate than past perfect, in my opinion.)

To explain why using past continuous (or past progressive) is preferred, here is the closest entry I can find in Practical English Usage by Michael Swan.

422 past (2): past progressive (I was working etc)
3 past progressive and simple past: 'background' events
We often use the past progressive together with a simple past tense. The past progressive refers to a longer 'background' action or situation; the simple past refers to a shorter action or event that happened in the middle of the longer action, or that interrupted it.
As I was walking down the road, I saw Bill.
The phone rang while I was having dinner.
Mozart died while he was composing the Requiem.

In sentence 2, if you have this sentence alone:

Fans (queued/were queuing) overnight at a Hollywood music shop for the chance to get Lady Gaga's autograph.

I would say that either queued or were queuing can be used, depending on the way you want to narrate the scene. If you were a journalist writing it as a news, I think using queued would be more appropriate. However, if you were an anchor reporting the news, using were queuing would be more appropriate. This is because, according to my observation, TV news anchors usually use progressive tenses to arouse our attention, to make us feel as if we were in the scene of the news they are reporting.

However, when you gave the full passage,

Fans (queued/were queuing) overnight at a Hollywood music shop for the chance to get Lady Gaga's autograph. While they were waiting, Gaga saw their tweets. She immediately ordered 80 takeaway pizzas and sent them to her fans in case they were hungry.

I changed my preference to queued immediately. The reason is because it will provide the background (or the first reference time [ref.], if you prefer) for the whole story. Besides, there is already one use of the past progressive (... they were waiting, ...) as the main event of the whole story, which is sufficient for a news report.

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