In my English book, there's a text that talks about how rainforest plants being used as remedies. More specifically, it talks about how they become more and more common in modern medicine, while the indigenous tribes have been using them for a long time. In the conclusion of the text, it says:

Rainforest plants were being used by native Indians long before the Europeans arrived. Unfortunately, it has taken us nearly 500 years to realise the value of these ancient medicines!

What I don't understand is why the past progressive is being used here. As far as I know, the past progressive is usually used to describe an ongoing action at a particular point in time in the past, or two longer actions that were happening simultaneously. Neither is the case here.

I personally would have used the past perfect to indicate anteriority to the arrival of the Europeans.

Any thoughts why the author may have chosen the past progressive?

  • 2
    past progressive is an optional stylistic choice here - it could have been written as plants were used by... But I'd say it's a deliberate choice that tends to draw attention to the duration (they were doing it long before and/or for a long time; both are usefully alluded to, I feel). Oct 14, 2021 at 14:09
  • Thanks, I wasn't aware of that use of the past progressive.
    – Michael J.
    Oct 15, 2021 at 14:59
  • 1
    In your exact example, it really wouldn't make much difference if it didn't include the "continuous" aspect. But note that although "duration" is already being emphasised / amplified by long before, it would be perfectly reasonable to be even more emphatic, with those plants were already being used by natives. And it may be worth noting that imho the extra intensifier doesn't work anywhere near as well in the non-continuous context ...plants were already used by natives... Oct 15, 2021 at 15:18

1 Answer 1


"Rainforest plants had been used" and "rainforest plants were being used" are both fine here.

There's no requirement that the past progressive describe an ongoing action "at a particular point in time." Some textbooks and style guides might insist on that point, but as far as everyday usage goes, it would be normal to say, for example, "We were eating there a lot before it closed."

In formal speech or writing, "we went there a lot" or "we used to go there a lot" might be preferable, but as a matter of style, not grammatical correctness.

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