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Yesterday Peter and I made an appointment that we would meet at a cafe for a talk. But he hadn't shown up until I left. Today when I met him, I complained,

I waited for 45 minutes.

I was waiting for 45 minutes.

What are their differences?

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    "I waited" - the waiting finished, so the process took exactly 45 minutes. "I was waiting" - the process took at least 45 minutes, but didn't necessarily finished at that point (eg. I was waiting for 45 minutes before I ordered my first coffee, then I waited some more)
    – Spook
    Dec 31, 2021 at 8:22
  • I feel you could also use "I was waiting for 45 minutes" in cases where the waiting was cut short outside of your control: "I was waiting for 45 minutes, but then the cafe closed, and I had to leave". Jan 1 at 17:08

4 Answers 4

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"I waited" is the simple past tense. It indicates an action happened and finished.

"I was waiting" is the past progressive tense. It indicates the action ("waiting") was ongoing at the time, in this case that you were involved in the active process of waiting.

They both have a similar literal meaning, but the past progressive tense makes more sense for you to use if you want to point out that it was a long time to have to wait for. Consequently, you would also use this form if you wanted to convey how frustrated you were by having to wait for so long.

English speakers use the past progressive to show that they were occupied by the activity for at least that length of time. Since you were occupied by waiting, you were unable to do anything productive and your time was ultimately wasted, and the listener can guess at your frustration about that. The simple past doesn't make the same implication about being occupied by the activity, and thus doesn't have the same strength of implication about being frustrated by having your time wasted.

Searching "past tense vs past progressive tense" shows many sources supporting this nuance:

We use the simple past as the narrative form of the past to express completed, sequential actions. We use the past progressive to say what was happening at a particular moment in the past, to set the scene and to emphasise duration of a past action.

From Simple Past or Past Progressive. Pay attention to "emphasise duration", "set the scene", "say what was happening" — these are all drawing attention to the fact you were having to wait for such a long time, which is why it is more common to use this form when complaining.

The simple past — "I waited" — is simply statement of fact, and isn't normally used by English speakers to grumble or exaggerate durations in the past.

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"I waited for 45 minutes" is a simple statement of fact with no nuance or anything else implied.

"I was waiting for 45 minutes" includes the nuance that it was a long time to wait, so it's a subtle complaint rather than a simple statement of fact.

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I waited for 45 minutes.

and

I was waiting for 45 minutes.

have different grammatical forms, but there is no significant difference in meaning, or level of formality. The two can be used interchangeably.

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Interesting question. My personal take is:

  1. I waited for 45 minutes -- talking to Peter the next day.

  2. I was waiting for 45 minutes (or I have been waiting for 45 minutes) -- if you are still there when the guy arrives.

I'm a native speaker, born in Aotearoa New Zealand, lived in Australia for 20 years, so I speak a mixture of both dialects (which are closer to the Queen's English than US English).

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    "I was waiting" can only be used after the waiting has ended. "I have been waiting" can be used while you are still waiting. Dec 31, 2021 at 14:23
  • @theonlygusti not true. If I'm currently still waiting and am describing something that happened earlier. "Hi Bob, I'm running late, I've been waiting in like for four hours. Funny thing, I was waiting for 45 minutes when I saw a troupe of macaques come bounding through the terminal."
    – barbecue
    Dec 31, 2021 at 23:06
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    @barbecue I think the correct way to say that is "I had been waiting for 45 minutes when ...." Dec 31, 2021 at 23:36
  • @theonlygusti I guess we disagree.
    – barbecue
    Dec 31, 2021 at 23:38
  • @barbecue maybe it can be thought of as, the process of waiting out those 45 minutes in particular has ended? Relative to the speaker, that period of waiting ("the waiting") is already in the past, so "'I was waiting' can only be used after the waiting has ended" seems to still be a correct statement Dec 31, 2021 at 23:39

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