I was taught by an excellent teacher that in a sentence like "I cleaned the kitchen yesterday" the past simple is used to convey the whole kitchen was cleaned, otherwise you'd have to use past continuous: " I was cleaning the kitchen".

I've come across many examples that say: "I browsed the internet yesterday". Why is the past simple used when clearly it is not possible to browse the entire internet?


The difference between past simple and past progressive are not limited to whether things were completed or not. Any indication of completeness is heavily dependent on the actual verb and object. You can indicate incompleteness without using the progressive. Consider:

I cleaned the kitchen yesterday

You are correct that this would generally be taken to indicate completeness. However, it wouldn't necessarily mean that you have cleaned the kitchen top to bottom, spick and span, no dirt or grime anywhere. No, it means you completed whatever tasks you understand to be represented by "clean the kitchen".

You and the person you are speaking to may or may not have the same understanding of that concept, either. You might assert that you cleaned the kitchen yesterday because you wiped down all the surfaces, mopped the floor, put away all the dishes, and so on - but your mother might disagree, say that you had not properly cleaned the kitchen because you hadn't thoroughly cleaned the cooker-top.

So, then you might say:

I browsed the internet yesterday

That means that you completed the activity that you think of "browse the internet".

Replace either of those verbs with the past progressive, and you don't indicate that you didn't complete the task. Instead, you indicate that at some point that day, you were engaged in that activity. You might use it as part of a prepositional phrase indicating time:

I found that while I was cleaning the kitchen yesterday.

Or, without that 'yesterday' on the end, it might be the answer to a question:

What were you doing at 5pm yesterday?
I was browsing the internet

If you want to clearly indicate incompleteness, you have to use some extra words:

I started cleaning the kitchen yesterday
I cleaned the kitchen part-way yesterday
I cleaned the kitchen a little yesterday


Because it is about the action, not the object.

I browsed the internet yesterday.

You browsed the internet at a specific time in the past and finished that doing in the past too.

In other words, at the time of speaking, you are telling us what you already did and finished in the past. Therefore, it is not about the internet which is the object in your sentence but about the browsing which is the main verb in it.

I cleaned the kitchen yesterday.

This means that yesterday, you finished cleaning the whole kitchen. "Whole" since you used the word "kitchen" in general. You can say:

I cleaned part of the kitchen yesterday.

Although you used the simple past here, your sentence doesn't indicate cleaning the " whole" kitchen. Thus, the past simple is about the verb since you finished cleaning that part of the kitchen.

I was cleaning the kitchen.

The past continuous is used when talking about something that was interrupted by another thing. So, you were cleaning the kitchen when something happened that interrupted your cleaning process. That is why the past continuos don't come alone but followed or preceded by another verb. You should say, for example:

I was cleaning the kitchen when someone knocked on the door.

  • It can be used when talking about two actions that were happening in the past but one of them was longer than the other. See here.

I think what your teacher meant is that the doing is considered complete when the verb takes the past form but incomplete/still happening/not finished yet when using the past continuous.

  • @ Tasneem Zh I still don't understand : " I cleaned the kitchen" = I finished cleaning the kitchen as a whole, because that is possible, but "I browsed the internet"= I did not finish browsing the internet as a whole, because one can never browse the entire internet, that is impossible. Do you understand my confusion? – anouk Feb 24 '19 at 15:58
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    Yes, I understand. Well, it would be understood as I have browsed the whole internet if I used "whole" explicitly in my sentence, but I would be exaggerating or trying to indicate that I have browsed so many websites on the internet to prove a certain point, so I would say: "I browsed the whole internet." Again, it is not because I have used the past form of "browse" it meant the "whole" internet, but because I have specified that amount. I can also say: "I have browsed the whole internet but found nothing."... – Tasneem ZH Feb 24 '19 at 16:35
  • ... Now, I'm talking about my browsing action which I clearly did in the past and has an effect in the present, the effect here is that it is related to what is going at the time of that speech. Thus, it all about the verb, the meaning of the two sentences has changed when I changed the tense of their main verbs; however, whether it was whole, part of, or any other amount, was all depending on the quantifier of their objects. – Tasneem ZH Feb 24 '19 at 16:38
  • 'Internet' is believed vast, like air or the ocean, impossible to count. "I was exposed to air,' or "I swam in the ocean" = browse Internet viewed same way. Impossible one person drink all the ocean/breathe all the air--view Internet same. Recommend eview 'active' vs. 'passive' voice of English sentence.owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/… Past tense, present, or present continuous, irrelevant. Active voice sentence is it's the Subject / what they 'did[browse] is all important[not internet]. Cheers! – user90322 Feb 25 '19 at 8:42

Examine the word "browse" in the sentence.

  • Its definition: noun: 1) an act of casual looking or reading. Verb: 2) to survey goods in a leisure or casual way. (www.dict.com) "Browse" in this sentence is being used as a verb.

Reread the sentence with "browse" verb definition: I surveyed goods in a leisure and casual way on [... the Internet] yesterday.

Hope this clarifies.

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