Consider the following dialogue:

A: I think we should go to China for our holiday this year.

B: Sorry, what did you say? I was thinking about my work.

If I replaced "was thinking" with "thought", "have thought" or "had thought", would they be all acceptable in the conversation? Would each of them bring any difference in meaning?

2 Answers 2


Think of how B perceives it:

B: ... think think think think think think think—Sorry, what did you say?
A:                                          [blah blah]

B looks back and thinks of A's utterance as an event which is completely done, finished. Linguists call this view of an event the perfective aspect. Perfective aspect in the past is expressed using the past form of a verb, You said or You did say.

That event, A’s utterance, occurred at a time when B was in a state of thought which started before A's utterance and ended sometime after it. Linguists call this view of a state imperfective aspect. Imperfective aspect is expressed using a progressive construction; in this case, since the state lies in the past, B uses the past progressive construction I was thinking.

Perfect constructions like I have thought and I have been thinking express a state which arises from a previous event and is current at the point in time which you are talking about. Linguists call that time you are talking about reference time (RT). A present perfect construction has the present as its RT: it expresses a state which is current now, at the time of speaking. Since B is talking about a past event, his RT is the past; in that context a present perfect cannot be used.

A past perfect construction expresses a state with a past RT, a state which was current in the past, so you might think that I had thought or I had been thinking would be appropriate here. But the perfect construction does not express a state denoted by the lexical verb (think) in the construction, it expresses a state which arises from the state or event denoted by the lexical verb. B is not talking about the result of his thinking, he is talking about the thinking itself—so a past perfect construction doesn’t work either.

There is more about aspect here, and entirely too much about perfect constructions here. Be careful not to confuse perfective aspect with perfect constructions—they are entirely different things.

I make the appallingly sexist assumption that A is B’s wife, only because that’s how this conversation always plays out in my own household.

  • Thx! I made up this dialog. After that, I indeed felt it should be a conversation between a wife and a husband. I figured out some kind of vague concept just like perfective aspect you mentioned. That's why the next answer never satisfies me. You made it clear for me!
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 12:36
  • BTW, can you plz give me an example of "I have thought...."? I cannot contrive one. @StoneyB
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 8:48
  • @ZhanlongZheng: I have thought about your offer and have decided to accept it. Commented Apr 24, 2014 at 9:28

No! I was thinking fits better there. To me, thought would not sound relevant in that context. have thought would mean that you suddenly popped up with a thought about your work; have been thinking may work but does not sound as good as was thinking. Clearly, when you use was doing (something) after asking someone to repeat what did they say, it means you did not pay attention at that time as you were in some other thought.

  • Thx, I think your answer is right, but I need a more elaborate one.
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 9:31

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