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Context: I was on a college football team for half a year

  1. When I played for the team, I trained hard and we ate veggies
  2. When I WAS PLAYING for the team, I WAS TRAINING hard and we WERE EATING veggies

Are both correct and natural? Is there any difference in shades of meaning?

P.S. Please kindly refrain from quoting grammar textbooks or websites, as the standard explanations they provide simply don't work that well when it comes to using the language (and because I've already read them hundreds of times and have most of them memorized) and one more: if you are NOT a native speaker please don't respond (I'm sorry but I've been given false advice here several times by non-native speakers) Thank you for your attention!

2 Answers 2

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To summarize: Yes, both are correct and natural. There are no significant differences in shades of meaning. However, I'd prefer the first (and I think that many other native speakers would, too) because it is more concise.

To provide some more detail: As you probably know, the progressive aspect ("to be" + present participle) is typically used for ongoing action. Thus, the second sentence implies that the actions were continuous. The verbs in the first sentence do not inherently carry that implication. However, it is unlikely that any reader would think that you "played", "trained", or "ate" at only one specific time. Thus, it is very likely that a reader would infer exactly the same meaning from the first sentence as from the second. There is really no practical difference.

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    I would use a combination of the two. When I was playing for the team, I trained/used to train hard and we ate veggies. Nov 27, 2021 at 8:57
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The simple past tense is used to tell a story that happened in the past. The past continuous is used to provide context for a story that happened in the past.

So, your first sentence is great. It tells the story of when you played for the team, and how you prepared. That's the point of the first sentence.

The second sentence, however, only provides context, and tells no story. When there's a context clause, we need a story clause. The meaning is clear, but after reading it, I'm waiting to hear what the point of the sentence is, like:

When I was playing for the team, I was training hard and we were eating veggies, so I was always in great shape. The point of this sentence is now to say that you were always in great shape then, and to explain why.

For a clearer example in dialogue:

Annie: I finished the book you bought me on the bus just now.
Bob: Oh great! What did you think?

Here, Bob understands that Annie is telling him that she read the book he gave her, and continues the conversation from there.

Annie: I was finishing the book you bought me on the bus just now.
Bob: Oh yeah, what happened?
Annie: This drunk guy started yelling at me about the book!

Here, Bob understands that Annie is just giving the context for what happened on the way home, and is waiting for the story she wants to tell.

Now, this is what happens if Bob misunderstands, and thinks Annie's first sentence with past continuous is the story:

Annie: I was finishing the book you bought me on the bus just now.
Bob: Oh great! What did you think? Annie: It's good, but that's not the point. This drunk guy started yelling at me about the book!

Here, Annie has to correct Bob's misunderstanding of the situation.

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  • Thank you for your elaborate answer. You provided some really nice examples. Although, I have to say I am aware of this usage ("longer action with interruption or conclusion" e.g. "was walking and met a friend/ was reading a book and then you called / was swimming when I saw a shark" etc. I still have some questions: - "How was your bus trip yesterday?" - "not good. I was sitting with John (the bully) all the way to school" Does the continuous aspect here requires me to add another event (or conclusion) after my sentence? Or it's not neccesarry and I can leave it like that? Nov 27, 2021 at 19:26
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    @Dmitriy Great question! No, it does not require anything, because the answer to the question "How was your bus trip?" is fully answered just by giving the context of the bus trip. It implies, "The trip not good because I was sitting with John." This is very similar (perhaps even a direct parallel) to how you cannot normally start a simple sentence with "Because...", but it's totally natural after a "Why...?" question.
    – gotube
    Nov 27, 2021 at 22:48
  • Thanks! How about the following context: - "Tell us about your recent vacation in Egypt" - "I was swimming, I was reading books and I was taking diving classes" As I understand, In this context It is highly recommended to add some conclusion like "it was great" otherwise these 3 sentences are likely to sound unfinished to a native speaker as if making him expect some more information? However, I can also change it into "I swam, I read books, I took diving classes" without adding "it was great". Is it possible change those into past simple? and if so, should I still add the conclusion? Nov 28, 2021 at 17:03
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    @Dmitriy Another good question. This one I don't have a clear answer about why, but I can say the continuous answer would be one natural choice, and greatly improved by adding "... the whole time" to the end, but the simple past answer is miles better.
    – gotube
    Nov 29, 2021 at 4:47

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