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I'm studying Barron's 504 absolutely essential words and came across this sentence:

"When the bank guard spied the sinister-looking customer, he drew his gun"

but it seems odd to me..we are talking about a snapshot of a time in past while someone was spying another..the correct form of the sentence should be like this:

"When the bank guard was spying the sinister-looking customer, he drew his gun"

does the first sentence make sense to you?

  • first sentence sounds good, second bad. think of "spied" as simply "spotted". i would avoid extending that usage to "spying" though. there is an old nursery rhyme/game thing that starts with "I spy, with my eye..." (and then you say "something blue" or whatever, and the other person guesses what you are looking at. – Justin Stafford May 30 at 8:39
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  1. When Tim arrived home, the children did their homework.
  2. When Tim arrived home, the children were doing their homework

Both forms are correct but they have different meanings.
In sentence #1 the children did their homework after Tim arrived home.
In sentence #2 The children had started doing their homework before Tim arrived, and it was ongoing when he arrived.

Similarly

  1. When the bank guard spied the sinister-looking customer, he drew his gun

This means that the bank guard pulled out the firearm after he saw the suspicious looking customer.

In the second example I would add the preposition "on"

  1. When the bank guard was spying on the sinister-looking customer, he drew his gun"

This means that the bankguard had spent some time looking at the customer in secret before pulling out the gun. I would prefer to use "while" instead of "when" because it suggests that two actions happened at the same time.

  • To spy means to spot, see, identify a thing or person, usually it's in the distance or partially hidden.

  • To spy on something or someone, means to look at that thing or person in secret without being seen.

Examples

‘He was spying on Selina, watching her every move.’
‘She's there to spy on her cheating husband.’

  • but i thought "he" in "he drew his gun" refers to that sinister looking guy not the bank gaurd! – r0ck May 31 at 9:20
  • @ALi very good point! The "he" is ambiguous, does it refer to the guard or to the customer? (the customer could be a man or a woman, we don't know for certain) If both people are male, the person drawing the gun could be either one. But it's probably the customer because the author has told us he looked sinister (suspicious). Probably the comma tells us that the action belongs to second character. I'm not 100% certain about this though. – Mari-Lou A May 31 at 9:37

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