My grandfather fought Nazis in WWII and I'm afraid of talking to a stranger

Which use of Past Simple would you attribute this sentence to?

Is it a longer, repeated action in the past like "he fought Nazis every day for 5 years" (Geofrey Leech calls similar usages "past habit or state" actions that are repetitive or last without interruption like "he lived in Japan for 5 years")

or is it more like a complete action, "event" so to say, like "He got drafted, he fought Nazis, and then they tranferred him to Japan where he met my grandma" (Geofrey Leech calls this usage "event" in the past)

Geofrey Leech in his book states that in the past there isn't often a clear distinction between "event" and "state/habit/repeated action", and he also implies that there's no real practical need for such distinction. But I still want to draw the line of distinction as clear as possible, because I have trouble distinguishing between repeated actions in Past Simple and repeated actions in Past Continuous.

What are you thoughts on this? Do you perceive "fought" is that sentence as an event? or more like like a regular, longer action? I understand that in reality "fighting" actually took him a few years, but I'm more interested in how you perceive that sentence rather than how this action actually looked in real life, since human languages aren't complex enough to give a full picture of reality and a great deal of approximation is always involved.

  • My father fought the Nazis, my grandfather fought the Kaiser's troops, and my great-grandfather fought the Boers. Should I be afraid of talking to strangers? I don't see the connection. Commented May 29, 2022 at 18:55
  • this sentence was meant to imply that my grandpa was brave and I'm so shy that I can't even talk to people. But the second sentence is actually not what's being discussed here because I made it up solely for the purpose of providing clearer context for commentators Commented May 29, 2022 at 19:06

1 Answer 1


Consider a similar sentence: "My grandfather fought bulls". You could interpret this in the two ways that Leech describes. In the first case (a past state or habit) you would describe your grandfather as a "Bullfighter". In the second (a past event) you would not call your grandfather a bullfighter, but a guy who (for some reason) had a fight with some bulls. Now in this case we would need to use our common sense and pragmatic understanding. If I knew your grandfather was from Spain I'd be more likely think the first interpretation was true. If I knew your grandfather was a farmer, I'd be more inclined to think the second interpretation was more likely.

So the question is "Do I perceive your grandfather to be a "Nazi fighter"? Probably not. I suspect (from my general knowledge) that he was a soldier in WW2. Fighting nazis was a consequence of that. He was not a "Nazi fighter", he was a guy who (as a soldier) had a fight with some nazis on one or more occasions. The sentence is pragmatically more likely to refer to a past event (even if that "event" was stretched out over five years of war)

But it doesn't really matter, since you get a similar understanding of the sentence either way. It is an example that illustrates that there isn't a clear or important difference, and trying to classify it may create more confusion than clarity.

  • Your interpretation of the sentence is very valuable to me. (especially the part on "one or more occasions") Thanks for making things clearer Commented May 29, 2022 at 18:00

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