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At first, please read 2 below sentences.

When I arrived, everybody was sitting round the table and talking. Their mouths were empty, but their stomachs were full.

After those sentences which next is more appropriate? Could you explain why?

They had eaten.

vs

They had been eating.

As to me, I think the first one is more suitable, because we know that "their stomachs were full".

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    Also, this may help (In)completeness for perfect / perfect continuous tenses – ColleenV Aug 5 '20 at 14:49
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    Consider this syntactically similar context: He spoke loudly but his words were slurred... Where an "explanation" offered by following text could be phrased as [...because] he had drunk / been drinking wine. I'm quite sure most native speakers would use the second (continuous) form there, but I can't say exactly why. Nor can I explain why that preference isn't reflected in OP's "eating" example (where I rather suspect most people would probably opt to use the simpler non-continuous form had eaten, not had been eating). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 5 '20 at 15:07
  • Also consider contexts where a family friend calls round just as you're about to have a meal, so you say Would you like to eat with us? A very common reply would be Thanks, but no. I ate / have eaten earlier, but you'd almost never encounter I have been eating earlier. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 5 '20 at 15:12
  • I have read it and my choice isn't changed, but can I see other people answers and thoughts? – Sergey Aug 5 '20 at 15:14
  • I know that example and I think "had eaten" refers to their "full stomachs" like you said and had been eating refers to their previous activity which had just stopped. But the example is also used to show the difference between "were eating" past continuous and "had been eating" past perfect continuous. You didn't mention that. – anouk Aug 5 '20 at 18:10
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There's little to choose between OP's two alternatives, so in practice I think the KISS principle dominates (choose the simpler form had eaten, rather than continuous had been eating).

But to the extent that there's an underlying semantic distinction, it's that we prefer had done for "completed" actions, whereas continuous had been doing implies that Past action was "interrupted" before completion, AND/OR it's not the kind of activity that normally has clearly-defined start / end points (chatting with friends, consuming alcoholic drinks, for example).

Personally, I have a slight preference for had eaten in OP's context because I think in terms of those people having eaten a meal together (an activity with fairly obvious start / end points). But someone else might imagine a scenario where the people who arrived earlier have been casually munching their way through snacks and "finger food" for some time, in which case they'd prefer continuous have been eating [nibbles].

  • Has the eating stopped in your "have been eating" example, or are they still eating ? – anouk Aug 5 '20 at 18:19
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    That's undefined - unless other aspects of the context provide clues. We say there's a "link" between the Past and the Present in "Perfect" constructions (have / had eaten), but that just means the Past is somehow relevant / connected - not necessarily that the action itself still continues into the present. Using the Continuous doesn't necessarily affect this either. Consider The crowd roared their approval. They had waited / had been waiting many hours for the show to start. Where there's presumably no doubt that they're not still waiting, regardless of the verb form. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 6 '20 at 11:35

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