I saw this sentence in New Concept English 3 lesson 5.

However, he had at last been allowed to send a cable in which he informed the editor that he had been arrested while counting the 1084 steps leading to the 15-foot wall which surrounded the president's palace.

I believe the items in bold is reduced from "he had been arrested while he had been counting".

I've come up with 2 explanations for this omission, but neither seems flawless to me.

  1. I know that we don't repeat words in coordinate clauses, but I'm not sure if this rule also applies to subordinate clauses which the while-clause here belongs to. If it does, then omitting "he had been" after "while" is completely reasonable. However, as this omission has nothing to do with "while", I believe "while" is replaceable. It follows that "he had been arrested as counting" should also be correct, which seems odd to me.
  2. I know that it is acceptable to omit subject + auxiliary verb "be" in while-clauses if the main and subordinate clauses refer to the same subject. However, I doubt if this rule applies here, because the auxiliary verb here is "had been", not just "be". In my opinion, the items should be rewritten as "he had been arrested while having been counting" if we apply this rule here.

I know there must be something wrong with my reasoning, but I can't figure it out.

  • 2
    The elision is more likely "he had been arrested while he was counting."
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 13:37
  • Thank you @Robusto , but I'm still confused. I believe "he had been arrested while he was counting" means his being arrested happened before his counting the steps, which isn't the same thing the original sentence means.
    – Delta
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 14:33
  • 1
    No, it doesn't mean that. It simply means he had been arrested during his act of counting. If what you said is true, there would be no way to express a continuing action that happened in the past. Don't worry, though: it's a very common point of confusion for non-native speakers.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 14:37

1 Answer 1


Nothing has been omitted from this sentence. "counting the 1084 steps..." is a participial clause. It is possible to use them after when, while, before, after, on, without, instead of. Note that as is not included in the list. Here is another example using while.

I sprained my ankle while playing tennis

  • Thank you for your reply, but I'm not convinced. I believe every "while -ing" can be interpreted as a certain form of omission. eg. I can interpret your example as "I sprained my ankle while I was playing tennis"
    – Delta
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 14:04
  • 2
    @Delta: I think you're very mistaken if you think that. Just because you can usually add various contextually obvious words and expressions to an utterance doesn't automatically imply they were "omitted" from the original shorter version in any meaningful sense. Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 14:37
  • @FumbleFingers, Maybe my expression is ambiguous. What I really mean is that every "while -ing" clause can be expanded into a certain redundant version without affecting its meaning, so I can understand the original version more clearly with the help of the longer version. I don't mean there are words omitted from the original version.
    – Delta
    Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 17:36
  • @Delta: oic. Yeah, it's almost certainly true that the vast majority of usages of the while xxx-ing construction can be "expanded" in some way. Presumably because they occur in "subordinate clauses", so there will be elements in the main clause that also relate to the subordinate clause (but which are so contextually obvious that we don't normally repeat them). Commented Jan 28, 2018 at 17:46

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