Many natives told me that simple past always tells about completion, so I've been wondering how to speak about actions that you were doing at a specific time in the past, but in the end didn't finish. Are these sentences correct grammatically?

1A: Have you built that wooden ship I gave you?
B: I was building it (yesterday at 3 pm.), but I haven't built it. (I gave up building it)

2A: Did you write your book?
B: I was writing it (ten days ago), but I didn't write it. (I gave up writing it)

  • 3
    I was xxxxx but I didn't finish it, or haven't finished it. Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 18:52
  • (Or to elaborate: Your proposed sentences are not ungrammatical, just unclear.) Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 18:53
  • There are several uses of the simple past in English. Completion of an action is just one of them. In any case, it depends on the verb. Stative verbs such as mean or forget in the past simple cannot sensibly be said to have a completion. (I meant what I said, I forgot her birthday.)
    – Shoe
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 10:21

1 Answer 1


These sentences are perfectly grammatical, but they're confusing. You've asked several questions in the past about how much past simple can imply that an action if finished (or can't). Regardless of what was discussed there, one conclusion should be that this implication is only vaguely made, and relies on context to become clear. Another thing to note is that, without any extra context, negating the verb tends to make the opposite implication.

  • I built the ship or I have built the ship —On their own, both tend to imply "I completed the project"
  • I didn't build the ship or I haven't built the ship —On their own, tend to imply "I didn't even start."

Because of this, it's a little confusing to both say that you "were doing" something and "didn't do it." And the best way to resolve confusion is to use words that actually make the meaning clear:

I was building it yesterday, but I haven't finished [building it].

I was writing it, but I didn't finish.

  • Andy, thank you. It's been helpful. I realy can't understand and I never will why such a great language as English, which has many different words to describe almost everything existing in the world, hasn't made a solution to this huge problem. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 11:00
  • 1
    @IlyaTretyakov Part of what makes English so confusing is that it evolved from so many different influences—Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic languages. It leads to a lot of contradictions and inconsistencies. One basic point from this and some of the other questions: context is the thing that affects meaning the most, more even than verb tenses or other grammar aspects. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 12:37
  • so, according to the information in this post, to talk about what happened last night I should say "I was reading a book last night, but I didn't finish it", "I was writing a book last night, but I didn't finish it". It seems overcomplicated. Commented Aug 7, 2022 at 21:36
  • @IlyaTretyakov I'm sorry you got that idea. I was answering a question that seems to want to emphasize not finishing something. But if you responded to "what were you doing last night" with "I was reading a book" or "I was writing a book," there is not implication that you finished it. I suspect your confusion started with an example using the simple tense; the question linked above deals with whether "I read it" implies finishing. But whether or not it does, changing to "I was reading it" removes any such implication. Commented Aug 8, 2022 at 1:35

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