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  1. When I called her she wasn’t at home.
    She wasn’t at home when I called her.
  2. When I called her she had been at home.
    She had been at home when I called her.

Does had been at home mean that she was at home up to the instant in time I called her (durative aspect), or does it instead mean that she was at home earlier than where I called her but at the time I called her she had already gone somewhere else?

What I want to know is whether using had been SOMEWHERE in this way means the same thing as the past perfect continuous means (like in had been seeing someone), or whether it instead means the same thing as the past perfect means (like in had seen someone) — that is, in the earlier past something had already happened before something else happened.

Do native speakers universally observe, recognize, and interpret such subtle differences in the same way as one another? If so, then why do you hear so many different variations? Are they all trying to say things that mean slightly different things?

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    I guess with the right context you can make anything sound reasonable so long as it's not actually ungrammatical. But the Perfect form (She had been at home when I called her) looks pretty weird to me. The obsession with the Perfect baffles me. Never use it unless you're certain of why you need it. Dec 3, 2023 at 0:12
  • she had been at home does not say anything about whether she is still at home or had gone out as of the time of your call. Aspect alone is not sufficient to establish meaning much of the time; it reinforces meaning. When I called her, she had been at home most of the day but had gone out right before I phoned. vs When I called her she had been at home most of the day waiting for my call, and was glad that we were able to talk. Dec 3, 2023 at 1:57
  • @FumbleFingers when we say a sentence of past perfect without an action verb for example - (when I called her she wasn’t at home, she had been at home) I took this simple example but my question was migrated. anyway, so in this example the use of past perfect means that she had been at home up to the moment when i called her. OR it just means that when i called her she wasn’t at home, she had gone out somewhere (just earlier action)…
    – hwkal
    Dec 3, 2023 at 8:16
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    I see what you mean. Native speakers rarely care about trying to reflect the sequence of past events by choice of verb form if it's obvious from logic anyway. Although she was in for most of the day, she was out when I called. In the real world, it's unlikely I'd know she'd just gone out, so there probably wouldn't be any reason for using the Perfect form anyway. But to my mind it's slightly peculiar to reference the person you called by saying what they had been doing earlier, when what actually matters is that they were out when the speaker rang. Dec 3, 2023 at 12:16
  • @FumbleFingers I understand what you mean, but the reason I used the sentence is that I just wanted to know the meaning of had been (but not continuous) so that in the future I can use it properly. btw Thank you for the previous answers!
    – hwkal
    Dec 3, 2023 at 20:10

1 Answer 1

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Specific Questions

How to combine "She was/wasn't at home" vs "She had/hadn't been at home" with "when I called her"?

Without further details, these two forms effectively put her in the same place at the same time. More below under "When was she at home?"

Does had been at home mean that she was at home up to the instant in time I called her?

No, "when" is not the same as "up to" or "until." The "when" in this sentence means she was home exactly when you called her. A different description would be grammatically correct to say that, such as "She had been home until I called her" to mean that she was home up to the moment of your call, but that also doesn't anything about that moment itself. She could still be there or could have just left - you're not stating anything about her location at that time.

Subordinating conjunctions

A subordinating conjunction (when, before, after, once, until, whenever, since, while) along with a description is often needed to complete the meaning by specifying the duration or moment in the past tense. This description works together with the verb tense itself. Further, each conjunction only covers its own moment or duration, and says nothing about other moments or duration.

For the last two paragraphs of your question, I'll step back and look from a few angles.

Moments in time / Had been SOMEWHERE

"Had been somewhere" can mean either past perfect (a single moment or occurrence) or past perfect continuous (a span of time or multiple occurrences). To distinguish that requires more description:

(past perfect) "I had been to that park only once, before deciding the extra walking is worth it to go to this nicer one."

(past perfect continuous) "I had been in Italy for three years by then."

When was she at home?

"She had been at home when I called" has the same effective meaning about her location at a specific time as "she was home when I called" -- that is, there is no direct meaning about her location before or after the time of your call. She could have just gotten home while the phone was ringing, or been home for days. Rather, "she had been home" suggests that you might be about to describe another moment when she was not home. For example, it would be natural to use past perfect tense before describing a contrasting later moment, such as: "she had been home when I called her, but she was not there when I arrived to meet her" or "she had been out shopping, but she was back home when I called her." (Still, in those examples, the simple past "was home" or "was out shopping" would also be grammatically correct and feel natural to hear or read.)

For simple cases like where someone was at one moment in time, there's not a strong reason to use "had been." However, if there is one or more later moments that are different from this moment, the past perfect "had been" will help the reader or listener prepare to receive and understand that distinction; it helps to indicate that a change is about to be described.

More generally, past perfect can be used to indicate a past moment or interval that occurred prior to another past moment or interval. The Grammarly post linked below highlights another distinction: simple past can possibly mean the subject was in the habit of normally doing something.

In native speaking

There are certainly differences across the native English speaking world regarding how past perfect or simple past tense is used, and in some cases these don't strictly adhere to established grammatical rules of English. There is some complexity induced by this, but overall, the context provided by subordinating conjunctions is key for conveying the meaning, especially establishing a moment or duration, which is anchored in time by that additional information.

Further reading on tenses:

Aspects of the Past Tense https://www.thefreedictionary.com/Aspects-of-the-Past-Tense.htm

Past perfect (with comparison to simple past) https://www.grammarly.com/blog/past-perfect/

Past perfect continuous (also called past perfect progressive) https://www.grammarly.com/blog/past-perfect-continuous-tense/

Present perfect continuous / present perfect progressive: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/present-perfect-continuous-tense/

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    past perfect continuous is: had been + the present participle. This example you give is not:"I had been in Italy for three years by then." This would be: I had been going to Italy for three years by then.
    – Lambie
    Dec 3, 2023 at 14:34

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