Consider the following sentence:

She was lying on her side.

Because of the gerund form of the verb "lie" in this sentence preceded by the verb "to be" in the past, and making the link with my mother tongue, it appeared to me that this is an action that she's started doing but she couldn't finish. Somehow she was prevented from finishing the action she's started.

But it just does not sound right.

Using google translator to translate it into my mother tongue I see that the action has started and finished. I could even change the phrase to the following sentence without any change in meaning:

She had been lying on her side.

Is "She was lying on her side" the same as "She had been lying on her side"?

If not, what is the difference?

How is the first sentence explained grammatically?


1 Answer 1


This is a rather subtle point of English verb tenses.

"Was lying" ... or any "was X-ing", is called the "past continuous tense". The simple past tense means that something happened at one specific time. The past continuous means that it happened over a period of time.

If you wrote, "She laid on her side", that means at one point in time she positioned herself this way. If you wrote, "She was laying on her side", that means she did it for some longer period of time. The difference could be subtle. In context, you might say, "She laid on her side" and then imply that she remained that way. But you could also say, "She laid on her side, then she rolled over onto her back, then she moved to her stomach. She just couldn't get comfortable." Readers would understand that sentence to mean that she changed between these positions fairly rapidly. But "She was laying on her side" implies that she stayed that way for a while.

"Had been lying" is the past perfect continuous. Compare to "had laid", the (regular) past perfect. The perfect tense says that this action came before some other past action. Like you might write, "I stood up. I had been sitting down." That is, I say that something happened in the past -- "I stood up" in this case -- and then I want to say that something else happened BEFORE that. If I used the simple past, the reader would understand the order to be the other way around. I mean, if I wrote, "I stood up. I sat down" that means that first I stood up, and then I sat down. But, "I stood up. I had been sitting down" means that I stood up, but before I stood up, I sat down. Of course in some cases you could convey the same meaning by reversing the order, write, "I sat down. Then I stood up". But we often want to give ideas in a certain order for emphasis.

See https://www.grammarly.com/blog/verb-tenses/ for a discussion in different words. Maybe more clear. :-)

  • 1
    Surely If she was lying on her side ** (Not **laying) and If she lay on her side (Not laid) You are confusing the tenses of the verbs to lie (intransitive) and to lay (transitive). britannica.com/story/lay-lie-lied-lain-when-do-we-use-which Feb 25, 2021 at 21:44
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    Another way to say it is that "was lying" is like "is lying", but at a point in the past: "I went into the room, and she was lying on her side". Her lying on her side was what was currently happening when you went into the room (as an extension of what was happening prior to that). "Had been lying" indicates a course of action that has already stopped prior to a certain point, either in the past or the present.
    – nick012000
    Feb 25, 2021 at 22:25
  • Thank you for answering Jay, it clarified my question. Thank you for adding this comment @nick012000.
    – Alan Alves
    Feb 26, 2021 at 14:25

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