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What's the difference between the following:

(1) I have been playing tennis for 5 years.

(2) I was playing tennis for 5 years.

(3) I have played tennis for 5 years.

I'm trying to understand the use case and how they differ.

As far as I understand the (1) describes the action up until now. The (3) depicts the action in the past that lasted 5 years (it does not specify when in the past). How the (2) differs from the (3) one? Is the (2) even a correct sentence?

2 Answers 2

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  1. "I have been playing tennis for five years" uses the present perfect progressive (also known as "present perfect continuous") tense. It means that I continuously played tennis for the past five years and continue to play tennis in the present.
  2. "I was playing tennis for five years" is a correctly formed sentence using the past progressive (also known as "past continuous") tense. It means I continuously played tennis for a period of five years, but do not play in the present. The difference between the past progressive and simple past ("I played tennis for five years") tenses is that the past progressive implies the action was continuous over the period being referred to, while "I played tennis for five years" does not imply continuity, so it could potentially mean that, for example, I was a tennis player for two years, stopped playing for a year, then played for another three years.
  3. "I have played tennis for five years" uses the present perfect tense. It means that in the past I played tennis for a period (which may or may not have been continuous) of five years, I am not playing tennis in the present, and I may play tennis again in the future. The difference in meaning between the present perfect and the simple past ("I played tennis for five years") tenses is that the present perfect implies you may play tennis in the future, but the simple past does not imply this.
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Your understanding is largely correct. You are less clear on the third sentence.

To indicate that you have played tennis for five years at some point in the past, not connected with the present, you might say:

  • I played tennis for five years.

That would imply that you are no longer playing tennis. When you say:

-I have played tennis for five years.

. . . it does not differ substantially from using the present continuous as in your first sentence. The principal difference is that, instead of stating it as if it were an ongoing part of your routine, you are stating it as if it were a settled fact.

The second sentence is correct. You would use it in a narrative sense, such as when telling a story about what occurred at some undefined point of time in the past. To make that time more defined, such as to say it had happened before something else that happened in the past, you could say:

  • I had been playing tennis for five years.

Note, however, that the use of past perfect must be combined, contextually (though not necessarily in the same sentence), with another past reference point, either a simple past tense verb, or an adverb/adverbial indicating a past time, e.g. yesterday, last week, last year, etc.

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