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I am trying to figure out if it's possible to use past continuous without specific time or interruption while talking about yesterday.

Here's the situation: I want to tell my friend how I spent my day yesterday. I do NOT intend to talk about any specific moment of yesterday (like "6:35" or "when you called") and neither do I want to tell a story (like "I was playing tennis when I heard a loud bang and I ran back home and something happened etc...") and neither do I want to add any duration (like "for 2 hours")

I have 2 options:

a. I was playing tennis yesterday

b. I played tennis yesterday

My intention is to follow up my sentence with other activities I took part in yesterday like cleaning the room and helping my father with his car. I want to describe my day yesterday.

  1. which tense would be most idiomatic in this context with my intention?
  2. Am I right in understanding that "a" will ALWAYS sound like a "background" for a story or a beginning of a story in this context and native speakers would always expect me to say what happened next?
  3. my fellow student told me that "a" should be used in British English over "b" in this context. I find it hard to believe, is it true?

Thank you!

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From a previous answer by me, which you can go and look up. I have basically answered this question three times.

The past continuous:

The past continuous (also called past progressive) is a verb tense which is used to show that an ongoing past action was happening at a specific moment of interruption, or that two ongoing actions were happening at the same time. Read on for detailed descriptions, examples, and past continuous exercises.

Statement: You were studying when she called. Question: Were you studying when she called? Negative: You were not studying when she called.

The Trick with the Past Continuous
The trick is this: Even if there is not actual "when" or "while" or "as" in the sentence, these are always implied.

There is always the idea of something that defines the moment in time when the was/verbING is being used.

So, "He was saying that he is going to leave soon." would imply either:

as he was getting ready to leave. OR when we arrived at the house. Those are examples of implied time limiters.

The he said/he says examples are obvious. One is present; one is past.

The present continuous can be used with a simple past tense.

He said we have a good chance of winning the game. He said it in the past, but the game has not yet been played. If the game had been played, he would have said:

He said we had a good chance of winning the game. [the game has been played] English page past continuous**

Conclusion: If someone asks you: A person: What were you doing yesterday? You may answer: B Person: I was playing tennis. A Person: Ah, that's why you didn't answer your phone.

[Implication: You didn't answer your phone because you were playing tennis when I called.]

QUESTION: Can you see that the person asking the question had something in mind by using the past continuous? And that it becomes clear at the end of the exchange?

As for what your friend said, there is absolutely no difference here in terms of British or American English. Nothing at all. When telling someone about your day, there would be no reason to use the past continuous unless it is time limited by implication in the wider conversation. Otherwise, the simple past is best. Sometimes, the wider context of a conversation can color all the tenses used:

CONTRASTING CONVERSATIONAL SCENARIOS

  1. John wants to tell his friend what he was so busy doing laundry yesterday that he didn't answer any of his phone calls. VERSUS
  2. John wants to tell his friend what he did yesterday so his friend can understand how busy he really was.
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  • I read your old post some time ago and want to thank you for changing it to answer my specific question. Although I fully understand the concept of "implied moment in time" There's still one thing that remains unclear to me. Does the concept of "moment in time" include the time periods that are just slightly longer than a moment, like "a class" or "during a telephone call' or "my trip to work". (like 60-120 min periods) For example: - "Didn't you get bored on your way to work?" - "Of course not, I was playing/played (??) my GameBoy" Jul 15, 2020 at 23:50
  • Dmitriy Please read the conversational scenarios. But you have answered your own question: Didn't you get bored [simple past] on your way to work? Answer: Of course not, I was playing Gameboy. Implication: I didn't get bored because I was playing x. See? The conversational scenario involves two people and so does the actual moment in time. It is not just the single person. The moment in time is the moment that is OVER (get bored) versus the other won that lasts OVER some period of time (playing Gameboy).
    – Lambie
    Jul 16, 2020 at 0:08
  • Can this logic be different in interrogative sentences? Because I was told in some other thread here ( ell.stackexchange.com/questions/252341/…) that when asking about the class that I missed, I should say "what did the teacher talk about?" instead of "what was he talking about"? (the latter being less idiomatic). Is it because the speakers haven't yet introduced any "implied moment" at the time of speaking? (as opposed to "I didn't get bored") Or is it because "a class" doesn't count as a moment? Jul 16, 2020 at 0:14
  • The class is over and you want to know what you missed. So, What did I miss? would be the most usual. versus: Since you yourself said you missed it, the logical tense is simple past here. There is no reason to use the PC.
    – Lambie
    Jul 16, 2020 at 0:24
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    @IlyaTretyakov No, those sentences are fine but can also follow the tenses I have in my previous comment. It all depends on what you want to say.
    – Lambie
    Nov 18, 2023 at 15:29
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Past Continuous may be used in such a case

The past continuous (or past progressive) construction is normally used to describe a past event that is still ongoing, or one that was interuppted by a subsequent event, or a series of past events (which seems to be what the OP mans by "a story". It is formed with the past tense of "to be" ("was" or "were") plus the present participle of ther main verb ("-ing" form).

Some possible examples:

  • I was playing tennis when two cars crashed in the street. [Interruption]
  • I was playing tennis. Then I went home and had lunch. [Sequence]
  • I was playing tennis for the last 30 hours withotu a break. [Ongoing]

Now let us consider some possible conversational exchanges.

Alice: What did you do yesterday?
Bob: I played tennis.

Carol : What did you do yesterday?
Dave: I was playing tennis.

A fluent speaker might make either Bob's response or Dave's. I think strictly speaking Bob's response using the past simple is more 'correct". But many speakers would make Dave's response with the past continuous, and so it cannot be considered "wrong". Furthermore consider a sinmialr but longer exchange:

Ellen: What did you do yesterday?
Fred: I was playing tennis. Then I cleaned my room. And then i helped my father with the yard work. And then we had dinner.

Fred's response involves a sequence of events, which makes it clearly appropriate to use the past continuous construction, although the simple past could also be used, and the meaning would be much the same.

Sources

English Club's page on "Past Continious" reads:

The Past Continuous tense is an important tense in English. We use it to say what we were in the middle of doing at a particular moment in the past.

...

The Past Continuous tense expresses action at a particular moment in the past. The action started before that moment but has not finished at that moment. For example, yesterday I watched a film on TV. The film started at 7pm and finished at 9pm.

The EF page on "Past continuous tense" reads:

The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and were still going on when another event occurred.

It is used:

  • Often, to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. "The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly. She was looking for her baby, and she didn't notice the hunter who was watching her through his binoculars. When the shot rang out, she was running towards the river..."
  • to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action, e.g. "I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang."
  • to express a change of mind: e.g. "I was going to spend the day at the beach but I've decided to get my homework done instead."
  • with 'wonder', to make a very polite request: e.g. "I was wondering if you could baby-sit for me tonight."

None that neither of these sources suggest using this construction when describing a single event unrelated to any other event. However, many fluent speakers might well use the construction in that way, and such use would certainly be understood. However, in that case, the use of the simple past might be better writing.

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