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1. He played for two hours.

2. He was playing for two hours.

3. He had been playing for two hours.

Which one is grammatically correct and preferable? I think the first one is not grammatical. I'm a little bit confused about the third one because there is only one action and we use present perfect continuous tense when we talk about two actions.

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  • We can use the past continuous (2), but it's by no means obligatory, with the past simple e.g “He was playing for two hours when his boss called”. The Present Perfect Continuous would be “He has been playing for two hours”.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 29, 2023 at 14:01

4 Answers 4

17

All three examples by the OP are grammatically correct. What's missing is the context.

  1. Yesterday he played for two hours. (Simple Past) OK
  2. He forgot about the real world while he was playing for two hours. (Past Continuous) OK
  3. He was tired after he had played for two hours. (Past Perfect) OK
  4. He'd been playing for two hours when his father called. (Past Perfect Continuous) (OK)
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  • 1
    examples make a big difference, thank you Jan 29, 2023 at 16:05
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All three options can be correct. It depends in which tense and in what context you are talking about playing. For example:

1. He played for two hours. This refers to an action (or a point in timeline) that happened in the past.

2. He was playing for two hours. This one talks about the particular time span from the beginning to the end of that action in the past. He could be doing something else simultaneously.

3. He had been playing for two hours. This one is similar to second one in the meaning, but it emphasizes that the action of playing was completely done; If he did anything else, he must have done it after this action.

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I have nothing to add to the previous answers which both make useful comments and should be read carefully. But I'd like to comment on the assumption behind the post, because it's an assumption I'm seeing regularly in the questions on this site.

The opening post asks a question: Which one is grammatically correct? And the answer will always be: It depends what you are trying to say.

Obviously grammar matters. But grammar is related to content. If you want to communicate fact X, you use the grammar that is right for fact X. But if you want to communicate fact Y, and that requires different grammar, then you use different grammar as required. Grammar never exists in isolation.

So don't think in terms of what is right and wrong. Think in terms of usage. Played is correct. "Was playing is correct. Had been playing is correct. (Had played is not listed but is also correct.) But they are correct in different ways, correct when used in harmony with the events they were intended for.

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  • This is a good point and should probably have an entry in the FAQ in the Help Section to avoid conflating "grammatically correctness" with appropriateness/correct in context/etc. As a slight nitpick, I'd disagree with your 2nd paragraph - I think you can always say categorically whether a sentence does/doesn't follow the rules of grammar without knowing the context. But that said, that doesn't mean that it conveys the intended (or any) meaning - it could be complete nonsense and still be grammatically correct. Jan 30, 2023 at 10:51
  • 1
    Thanks. That too is good feedback. On reflection I agree with your nitpick! What I should have said was that in the OP they are all grammatically correct, but it's impossible to choose between them without knowing the intended context. As to the FAQ entry, I'm happy to take your advice, but I'm not sure that I know how to proceed. Jan 30, 2023 at 20:38
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Forms (1) and (2) are fully grammatically valid. Form (3) would in general be used only if a further statement referred to a subsequent event. Most often this would be in the same sentence. For example:

He had been playing for two hours when the lights went out.

But the other event could be mentioned in an adjacent or near-by sentence. For example:

The lights went out while he was playing a computer game. He had been playing for two hours.

In the absence of any mention of such a subsequent event, this use of a past perfect continuous construction would be at best unusual, and arguably simply wrong.

There are cases where a past perfect continuous construction is used but a later event is only implied, or perhaps not mentioned. But they are not the usual case for this construction. A comment mentions the example of:

John was tired. He had had been playing for two hours.

but in that case, an event of John becoming tired seems to be at least implied to occur after he was playing, or after he started playing.

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  • I'm not really sure what this means: "only if a further statement referred to a subsequent event". But 'John was tired. He had had been playing for two hours.' works fine and doesn't make any references to anything as far as I can see.
    – mcalex
    Jan 30, 2023 at 2:36
  • @mcalex John being, or becoming tired, happens after he had been playing, I would think. At least that is implied. But I will modify the answer slightly. Jan 30, 2023 at 15:44

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