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Please help me understand what I should say. I was doing my grammar book "Grammar in Use" by Raymond Murphy and this is what I found.

Jack read a book yesterday. (= from beginning to end) 1 - He read - completed action

Jack was reading a book when his phone rang. 2 - He was reading - unfinished action

But what if I finished reading a book yesterday but not from beginning to end? I finished reading a book just because it was getting late and nobody can read while sleeping.

He showed only two options here. And neither of them fit my actual action!!

1 - completed action (the book was read from beginning to end, but this is not what I did. I didn't read a book from beginning to edn)

2 - unfinished action (but I finished reading a book because I had to go to bed knowing that I will continue tomorrow or in a few days)

There is no 3rd option.... I really don't know what to say!

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    You can stop reading a book without finishing it, or without finishing reading it. Dec 27, 2021 at 17:07
  • Ok. What should I say then? I read a book yesterday. or I was reading a book yesterday. Dec 27, 2021 at 17:14
  • You stopped reading the book, because you went to sleep. That is what Michael meant. You stopped reading ( for the time being) , but that doesn't mean you finished the book.
    – anouk
    Dec 27, 2021 at 17:41
  • "I read a book yesterday" means you read the entire book. Natives don't always agree on the "I was reading a book" option, because some think it can only be used if something else happens, like your "when the phone rang". "I did some reading yesterday" could be a possibility.
    – anouk
    Dec 27, 2021 at 18:36

1 Answer 1

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"Jack read a book yesterday" is correct, but not the most natural sentence for this situation.

Simple past describes an action that is finished. It does not mean the action is complete, as in, that Jack read the whole book. It means Jack started reading and stopped reading. Anything that happened in the past and is not still happening now can be described with simple past.

So, in your example, the simple past describes the event of Jack reading the book.

So, what's not natural about the simple past version? In English, when we say that someone "read a book", without any other context, we understand it to mean they read the whole book. It's not a requirement of the grammar, just a convention. If we don't want to suggest that Jack finished the book, then we have several choices:

Jack spent some time reading a book.
Jack read a book for an hour.
Jack read a book until he fell asleep.
Jack did some reading.

And so on.

In English, we tell stories in the simple past. Clauses in past continuous describe things that are not the main story, but background information or context for the story itself.

So in a sentence like "Jack was reading a book when his phone rang" "was reading" always means that reading the book is not the story I'm telling, just a side detail, so if the story you want to tell is Jack reading a book, past continuous is never correct.

As for how this sentence can both mean that Jack read a whole book and Jack didn't necessarily read a whole book, it depends on where you're looking for meaning. The grammar itself just means Jack read something. But if you say "Jack read a book", people will guess that it means a whole book.

It's just convention that things like "I read a book", "I watched a movie", or "I mowed the lawn" usually mean the whole book, the whole movie, and the whole lawn. But it's natural to say, "I mowed the lawn, but didn't finish the part behind the garage". This shows that it doesn't necessarily mean to completion.

If the action is something that can be completed, more often than not, that's what people will infer, but not always. "I watched my favourite TV series last night" does not imply that you watched the whole thing.

And there's no rule about how long something takes, because, "I wrote a TV series last night" does suggest that you wrote the whole thing, even though that clearly takes longer than watching a whole series.

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    Wow! Thank you so much! Such an interesting and detailed explanation. Please, explain one more thing to me. You said that Simple Past describes an action that is finished but it doesn't mean the action is complete. "Jack read a book yesterday" means (according to your words) that Jack started reading and stopped reading. Please, tell me why "read a book" means the whole book, if in the example with Jack we use the same words: "Jack read a book" and "to read a book". Dec 27, 2021 at 20:20
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    @IlyaTretyakov I've added a few paragraphs to my answer about this. It's not as clear-cut as simple past vs past continuous, but I hope it helps.
    – gotube
    Dec 28, 2021 at 1:51
  • According to your words I can use Simple Past just for an answer to "What did you do yesterday?" I read a book. I wrote my book. I built a wooden ship which you had given me. I climbed a mountain. I drew a picutre. I knitted a sweater. None of these actions were complete. I just did them for some time but not till their end. Dec 28, 2021 at 9:49
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    @IlyaTretyakov Yes. If you qualify them with, "None of these actions were complete...", then the grammar is correct, and the meaning is clear. However, it's more natural to avoid the qualifying sentences at the end by rephrasing things like, "I read a few chapters of a book, started building the wooden ship you gave me..." and so on
    – gotube
    Dec 28, 2021 at 17:33
  • does your examples with "for + a period of time" and "until smth else happened" aplly only to the verb 'to read' or can they be used with many other actions that can be completed? "Yesterday morning I repaired my bike for half an hour." "Two days ago I wrote a book until she came home." Apr 26, 2022 at 16:36

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