In one ESL exercise the sentence "They were whistling while they worked" is given. There is no other context given.

I am wondering why the word 'whistling' is in the past continuous, when one would expect it to be the shorter and more emphasized action when compared to 'worked'. I'd expect something more along the lines of "They whistled while they were working".

  • All four combinations are possible. I'm trying to work out if I can sense any distinctions of meaning that are conveyed by the different options: I'm not certain that I can.
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 20 '20 at 19:46

As the comment from Colin Fine

They whistled while they worked

They whistled while they were working

They were whistling while they worked

They were whistling while they were working

are all grammatical and will probably be interpreted as meaning the same thing. The doubled use of the progressive, however, strikes me as not completely natural.

Moreover, if the intended meaning is that they were whistling during the entire time that they were working, none seem to make that thought entirely clear.

In that case, what sounds unambiguous and most idiomatic to me is

For as long as they were working, they whistled.

I see no need to repeat the progressive form with "whistle" because it is already implied by "for as long as." Following that logic, the progressive would be used with the first verb.

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