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He was burned when he poured boiling water into the mug.

He was burned when he was pouring boiling water into the mug.

Which tense is better to use here if the action isn't long? Can we use Past Continuous even if the action lasted only 3-5 seconds?

If I have such kind of dilemma, can I say instead: "He was burned while pouring boiling water into the mug."?

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    If the injury was caused by the water, then "scalded" would be better than "burned". See dictionary
    – James K
    Commented Mar 5, 2022 at 0:37

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In this case, I assume that your main point is simply to link the two events, the pouring and the burning—"He poured some boiling water, and that explains how he got burned"—not to emphasize their precise timing. In that case, "when he poured" and "while pouring" are both good choices.

The past continuous only becomes the best choice when we have reason to emphasize the concurrency of the two events. "Oh, this burn on my ear? I tried to answer the phone while I was ironing." The punchline hinges on the fact that I was immediately in the act of operating the iron when the phone rang.

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