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Can you please tell me if there is any difference in meaning between the past continuous and the past perfect continuous in the sentences below?

I was working for five hours when the light went out.

I had been working for five hours when the light went out.

I don't see any difference in meaning. Is there any? Are both perfectly natural there?

2 Answers 2

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I was working for five hours when the light went out.

This one means, "The lights went out during my 5-hour work period." There's no indication of when during the work period the lights went out.

I had been working for five hours when the light went out.

This one means, "The lights went out after I had been working for five hours." There's no indication of how long they worked in total, assuming the lights going out didn't prevent them from eventually continuing to work.

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  • I am upvoting this - as it is mostly correct. But I don't understand your final sentence.
    – WS2
    Nov 10, 2022 at 19:52
  • @WS2 In the first example, "five hours" indicates the total length of time that the person worked. In the second example, "five hours" does not indicate the total length of time. The last sentence makes this difference explicit. It makes sense to me, but if you can think of a better rephrasing, I'm happy to change it.
    – gotube
    Nov 11, 2022 at 16:36
  • I sort of got the idea that when the lights went out they hd to stop work! That's perhaps why your last sentence puzzled me.
    – WS2
    Nov 11, 2022 at 22:50
  • @WS2 Thanks. Good catch. Edited
    – gotube
    Nov 11, 2022 at 22:54
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Not Much

I was working for five hours when the light went out.

could mean "I was in the middle of a five-hour shift when the lights went out." but it is far more likely that it actually means the same as "I had been working for five hours when the light went out." that is, that the speaker had been engaged in work for a fiver-hour period when the lights went out.

The second version, using "had been" emphasizes the duration more than the first version does. Otherwise it is just a matter of style.

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  • But if the first is meant to mean that the light went out after they had been working for five hours, it is not a grammatically correct way of saying it - although most people would understand what they meant. The far better way of saying it is to use the past perfect "I had been working for five hours when...."
    – WS2
    Nov 10, 2022 at 19:56
  • That theoretical "rule" of grammar is not backed up by common usage, so it is not a rule at all. A fluent speaker might well use the first form, or either form, for this meaning. Nov 10, 2022 at 21:01
  • Well I wouldn't say it like that, and nor would most native speakers with whom I associate. . It sounds to me like something you might hear from someone with a European accent.
    – WS2
    Nov 10, 2022 at 22:44
  • Indeed in French, I suppose you might well say it like that "Je travaillais pendant cinq heures quand les lumières se sont éteintes." But I would need a French native speaker to confirm that.
    – WS2
    Nov 11, 2022 at 7:08

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