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Yesterday Sue ____________ (walk) down the street when she met James. He was going to the station to catch a train, and he was carrying a bag. They stopped to talk for a few minutes.

The correct answer to fill in the blank is "was walking". I understand it.

But I can't explain why "walked" is a wrong answer.

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    It's wrong because when she met James describes something that happened while something else was in progress - so walk needs to be in a progressive tense. If you wanted to use the simple past, you would have to change the sentence to Yesterday Sue walked down the street and happened to meet James. The version in your sentence is more natural though. – user96060 May 28 at 16:07
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    @Minty That is not technically true. – Lambie May 28 at 16:19
  • @Lambie which bit? – user96060 May 28 at 16:20
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    @Minty Please read my answer. I walked down the street when I met him. I did not go into the building. – Lambie May 28 at 16:25
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    @Minty In a description about a past event: She walked down the street when she met him. She didn't walk down the street before that. It's completely English. – Lambie May 28 at 16:31
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One of the main rules for using the past progressive or continuous (was + gerund) is when the word when appears.

  • to be doing something when something else occurred.

Most grammars will explain it that way.

The first action was ongoing WHEN the second action occurred. Even if the word when is not specifically mentioned, it can be implied.

  • I was eating dinner around 7 o'clock. That describes what you were doing at that time.

time of past continuous from englishpage.com

There are three basic uses (see that page from englishpage.com for many examples)

  • Interrupted action
  • Specific time as an interruption
  • Parallel actions
  • Creating atmosphere

She walked down the street when she met Steve. is fine but means:

She walked down the street as the result of meeting or seeing him.

As in: She left the room when she saw him.
She paid her bills when they arrived in the mail.

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I don't think that "walked" is wrong here.

Yesterday Sue walked down the street when she met James.

seems quite correct to me. However, i think that:

Yesterday Sue was walking down the street when she met James.

is better because the action of walking was still in progress when Sue met James. Also the next sentence is entirely in the past progressive, so "was walking" is more consistent and flows better.

  • I think you've entirely missed the point as made by @Lambie above - if the first of two "simultaneous" actions (when they happened was the same time) is Simple Past rather than Continuous, the strong implication is that it's an [immediate?] reaction to the second action. – FumbleFingers May 28 at 17:13

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