I have read the following sentence on a review site and it said:

"The box looked like someone had played football with it".

Can I change the sentence into:

"The box looked like someone had been playing football with it"?, since playing football is an activity with a duration?

Or is duration not important and is the focus on the result?


OP not only can change (Simple) Past Perfect had played football to (Continuous) Past Perfect had been playing football - it's actually more likely that's how a native speaker would phrase it.

As this chart shows, been (which would often be followed by a continuous participle -ing verb form) is the third most common word after looked like someone had...

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And if you want even more evidence, here are the relevant counts from Google Books...

looked like someone had been playing - About 58 results
looked like someone had played - About 5 results

I'd say that OP's reasoning (playing football is an activity with a duration) is a perfectly good way of looking things. Or we might say the box looks "beat up, tattered" because it's been repeatedly kicked about as if it were a football. As would be reflected by choosing to say it looked like someone had been kicking it, rather than ...had kicked it (which tends to imply only one kick).

  • There's a confounding factor here, potentially leading to a misleading conclusion... "had been" is grouping together all the verbs in past perfect continuous, plus the past perfect uses of to be, while the ones below it are all separate verbs. So of course "had been" is going to score higher. It's a modal. The most remarkable thing on that graph is actually how high "someone had taken" scores. – SamBC Mar 3 '19 at 17:07
  • Well, I don't know if it's necessarily convincing evidence, but Google Books claims 58 written instances of looked like someone had been playing, but just 5 instances of looked like someone had played. And I'm in no doubt as to the distinction made in my related kicking example. – FumbleFingers Mar 3 '19 at 17:17
  • Oh, the kicking one obviously makes sense, but a kick is a kick - playing football is mean kicks (or throws, I guess, depending on whose version of football it is). I suspect that the difference in result numbers for the full phrases may have other reasons to explain it as well - though it's pure conjecture what those are. However, ngram has an interesting result if you start from "someone" in the sentences in question... – SamBC Mar 3 '19 at 17:21
  • books.google.com/ngrams/… – SamBC Mar 3 '19 at 17:21
  • For good measure, looks like someone has been taking care: 5 hits, looks like someone has taken care: also 5 hits. – FumbleFingers Mar 3 '19 at 17:30

You have the sentence start in the past simple, and then move into past perfect. This is a textbook example of the base time of the sentence being the past, and part of it referring to something further back in the past.

The box looked as if, prior to the time the sentence is covering, someone played football with it. You want to change it because playing football is an activity with a duration, and thus you think the progressive is more appropriate.

The past perfect progressive is appropriate to use when the activity had duration, or indeed is a genuine activity at all (using it with stative verbs, verbs that denote states rather than actions, is rarely appropriate). However, that doesn't mean it's always more appropriate. Picking verb forms in English is far more often about knowing what not to use, and then picking from what's left. We often use simple and past participle forms of action verbs.

The difference in meaning between past perfect and past perfect progressive, when they are both appropriate, is usually slight, and frankly sometimes nonexistent for all practical purposes.

Someone had played football with it.

This means that, at some point prior to the base time of the sentence, someone played football with the object. They were no longer doing so at the base time, and there's the nuance that they hadn't just stopped recently. Most likely the speaker didn't witness them doing it. However, that matter, of witness and how long ago they stopped, is a matter of nuance, not essential meaning.

Someone had been playing football with it.

This means that, at some point prior to the base time of the sentence, someone was playing football with the object. They were no longer doing so at the base time. It is possible they had just stopped prior to the base time, but that is just possible - not implied. The speaker may have witnessed it, but that is just possible - not implied.

If you want to say they'd just recently stopped playing football with it, to be clear about that, you can do so with either form.

Someone had just played football with it.
Someone had just been playing football with it.

So, yes, you can change the sentence as you describe, but it is not in any demonstrable way better, or more standard, or more right. When it comes to aspect, a lot of the time the choice is stylistic or about (sometimes very subtle) nuance.

  • 1
    Initially I was a bit doubtful about your assertion that the continuous in OP's alternative carries some nuance of recently. It still doesn't really strike me as significant with the exact text as given (and no other context). But it's unquestionably present if we contrast 1) He said he had played football and 2) He said he had been playing football. Where #1 might even mean ...years ago [so he knows the rules, etc.], whereas #2 would probably imply ...just recently [so he's still sweaty and puffed out]. – FumbleFingers Mar 3 '19 at 17:01
  • The degree of nuance is often nuanced ;) – SamBC Mar 3 '19 at 17:05
  • @anouk that doesn't appear to be related to this question, so I'm not sure of the context...? – SamBC Mar 3 '19 at 20:18
  • @SamBC Sorry. This is the answer you gave: I mean if someone had a plan for the evening involving, say, "browse the internet", "cook dinner", "feed the dog", "finish my homework". In that case, "browse the internet" would be an abstract activity and they might feel they had 'done' it. – SamBC Feb 4 at 20:52 – anouk Mar 3 '19 at 20:41
  • Ah, okay, on another question. It's not some specialist term, it's just me using words that are likely unfamiliar to a learner. Something is "abstract" if it's not "concrete" or "specific". So "browse the internet" is not clearly defined, it has no well-defined endpoint, or even an idea of what it involves beyond being on the internet, so it is abstract. Making dinner or finishing homework is more concrete. – SamBC Mar 3 '19 at 21:11

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