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If I want to emphasize both the process and duration of some action or event which was before another one, I should opt out for the past perfect continuous tense: "I had been studying for 3 hours before Mom came home" (UPDATE: I was told that in certain contexts, "before" essentially means "when")

Is it equally correct English to simplify the past perfect continuous to the past continuous (The way you do with the past perfect: "We left before you came home" instead of "We had left before you came home"):

"I was studying for 3 hours before Mom came home" instead of "I had been studying for 3 hours before Mom came home"?

I understand that in informal speech all kinds of things may happen, but I'd like to know the best practices which would be good for some formal exam.

UPDATE: The way I see it now, you should use the past perfect continuous with "before" when this conjunction means "when" (I'm still getting used to this apparently illogical thing).

But, e.g., the sentences "Marilyn was a factory worker before she was a model" or "I was dissembling before you were born" don't need perfect tenses because "before" in them means "before" and the succession of actions or events is expressed.

Someone told me that it was OK to say: "They were married for 10 years before they got divorced" or "They had been married for 10 years when they got divorced". Does it mean that I can substitute "when" with "before" in the latter example and that it would mean "when"? ("They had been married for 10 years before (meaning "when") they got divorced")

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Well, you can sort of use either version, but there's a slight difference in meaning, which may or may not matter, depending on context.

To me, "I was studying for three hours before mom came home" feels vaguely wrong -- it's not terrible, and it doesn't immediately jump out as "obviously non-native english speaker", it just doesn't fit together quite right.

"I had been studying for three hours before mom came home" firmly establishes that we are about to discuss things that happened in the moment that Mom came home, while "I was studying before mom came home" feels more like you're setting up to discuss something that happened during the study period (and in that context it doesn't make sense to say "for three hours"; that's what makes the phrase feel awkward).

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  • Just to try to clarify my answer again: I was studying for three hours before mom came home sounds good if we interpret it as I was studying for three hours in the time period before mom came home, but not if we interpret it as I was studying for three hours, at which point mom came home. – legatrix Dec 18 '20 at 15:39
  • I do think the latter interpretation is the one the native speaker tries first, hence I agree with you that it's a bit weird, but the OP had the first interpretation, and it is that one which my answer tried to address. – legatrix Dec 18 '20 at 15:40
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Now that you have simplified the question, my answer is that not only is it correct to 'simplify' your example, it is necessary (and so I wouldn't call it a simplification).

If, as you said before, you insist that you don't mean when, then your past perfect continuous sentence is analogous to:

  • I had been studying for three hours in the afternoon.

Which, as you can hopefully see, is not good on its own. (We would just use the past continuous.) The past perfect continuous simply doesn't make sense with the before-phrase on this reading, although I admit it's a difficult case, and I had to repeat it to myself a few times.

The problem is the subtle interaction of the before-phrase with the tense of the verb. With the past perfect continuous, a when-phrase seems acceptable but a before-phrase does not.

I also don't think the comparison with the past perfect simple and past simple really helps.

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  • But what do you make out of the following sentences which weren't created by me: "I had been waiting for three months before they finally sent me an answer or "He had been waiting for the bus for 10 minutes before it arrived"? Are they wrong? – Rusletov Dec 18 '20 at 15:16
  • This gets to the heart of my earlier question to you. In these cases, 'before' essentially means 'when', and the before-phrase does not focus on the time period before the event happened (which is what you said you understood the before-phrase to be focussed on). So I interpret these sentences differently to the way I interpreted yours. – legatrix Dec 18 '20 at 15:17
  • I couldn't have fathomed that "before" can me "when". How come? – Rusletov Dec 18 '20 at 15:20
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    OK, maybe I should have been clearer, sorry. This use of 'when' means 'at that point in time'. So: I had been waiting for three months. At that point in time [i.e. the end of the three months], they finally sent me an answer = I had been waiting for three months when they finally sent me an answer. = I had been waiting for three months before they finally sent me an answer. – legatrix Dec 18 '20 at 15:22
  • This answer is confusing to me. What's wrong with "I had been studying for 3 hours before Mom came home"? That sounds like a perfectly normal thing to say if you're establishing the setting for a story. "I had been studying for three hours before mom came home. I heard her pull up in the driveway, and then suddenly she burst in and immediately started yelling at me for not doing my homework!" – Darth Pseudonym Dec 18 '20 at 15:30

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