This is the first paragraph of an article:

The salvage operation had been a complete failure. The small ship, Elkor, which had been searching the Barents Sea for weeks, was on tis way home. A radio message from the mainland had been received by the ship's captain instructing him to give up the search. The captain knew that another attempt would be made later, for the sunken ship he was trying to find had been carrying a precious cargo of gold bullion.

Is the word "carry" here a state verb or action verb? Can we change "had been carrying" to "was carrying" or "carried"?

At the end of the article, it contains the following sentence:

The Karen ( the name of the sunken ship) had been sailing in a convoy to Russia when she was torpedoed by an enemy submarine.

Can we change "had been sailing" to "was sailing"?

  • 1
    Restating it as "was carrying" would make it ambiguous with a present state. With the sentence near the end it's probably more a question of emphasis. The sinking is what's important to the salvagers, so it's not necessary to report both events in the historical past as if there's more to the story. You could change it without making it ungrammatical or even changing the meaning, but it would sound more like a children's book. Jan 29, 2014 at 3:33
  • Thanks, Tyler. So "had been sailing" is better than "was sailing" in the same way?
    – user4140
    Jan 30, 2014 at 2:04

2 Answers 2


This is about the past perfect: one past action/activity happened before another happened.

The first past action is talked about in the past perfect.

Think about the ship that sunk. First, it was loaded with a cargo (gold bullion) and then it sunk. When talking about this story later, it is necessary to use the right verb tense, or aspect as many say, when describing the story.

There are, however, two forms: the present perfect simple and the present perfect progressive. In very simplistic words, the present perfect progressive is used to emphasize, to stress, the length of the action rather than the action itself.

for the sunken ship he was trying to find had been carrying a precious cargo . . .

The loading and carrying of the cargo happened first in the past and then the ship sank. Therefore, you have to put the part about carrying the cargo in the past perfect. The writer of the text chose to use the past perfect progressive to emphasize, probably, the aspect of sailing for days or weeks with the cargo before the ship sank.

This is also the aspect I would choose because of the duration of sailing - that is, the length of time of sailing on a ship.


"had been carrying a precious cargo"

Well, actually I don't see why here the progressive form is used. Maybe simply because it is often used and often it is used mechanically without much reflexion.

But I would prefer "had carried a precious cargo". The important thing is the fact that there was a precious cargo on board, so there is actually no need to stress the idea that the ship was in the act of carrying a precious cargo. I think that is totally superfluous.

Another thing I would like to add is a remark about the grammar term "static or state verb" that you find in English grammars. I think such terms create a lot of confusion. It makes no sense to ask is carry "a state verb" or not. The idea of static verbs is a very vague idea and only states the fact that some verbs are almost never used in progressive form such as to understand. You say: I don't understand what you mean. Not: I'm not understanding ...

But there is no criterion that lets you see that a verb is not used in progressive form. And as to the verb carry you can use it in normal form and in progressive form according to what you want to say. If you lay importance on the fact you say: He carried a bag on his back (and not a child). If you want us to see the picture with the man walking along having a child on his back you would say: He was carrying a little child on his back.

  • Thanks. If "had carried a precious cargo" was used, then we would not know whether the cargo was on board when it sank, right?
    – user4140
    Jan 30, 2014 at 2:12
  • I don't think so. There is no reason to assume that the cargo flew away.
    – rogermue
    Jan 30, 2014 at 6:22

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