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I'd like to ask if my understanding of the continuous aspect in English is correct.

  1. When I say " Last week or yesterday I was repairing my car" the meaning is that I was doing this thing continuously for the whole week or day. When I use Past Simple it only shows that I did for some time not all the time. That's why it's natural to say for instance "Last year I ate many yummy things" because I didn't eat them continuously for the whole year. Is my understanding correct?

  2. Why is it fine to say "I was working there for 2 years" to emphasize duration but here "When I was little I was going to school" Past Continuous doesn't sound good?

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    Well, obviously Last week I was repairing my car wouldn't be understood as saying that you literally spent the whole week doing so without a break, just that you spent a long time working on the car, probably over several days. Mar 10 at 8:44
  • So, we simply emphasize the duration. How would you comment my second point, then?
    – Adam
    Mar 10 at 9:21
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    You would not use those sentences outside any context. When you say "Yesterday I was repairing my car" we are expecting an end to the sentence, e.g.: "Yesterday I was repairing my car when the phone rang and ...". It doesn't mean you have been doing something all day long but that you were doing something when something else happened. The BE-ing form only takes its meaning when contrasted with the V-ed form.
    – None
    Mar 10 at 9:23
  • It's the same with "I was working there for two years" you need a context, an end to the sentence to justify the use of the BE-ing form of the verb. Whereas "I worked there for two years" can stand on its own.
    – None
    Mar 10 at 9:28
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    The suggested edit although good in many places does introduce two errors. If this somehow gets approved, I would ask the OP to rollback the edit. I have rejected the suggested edit.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 10 at 11:00

1 Answer 1

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It depends on context. Here are some examples:

Last week I was repairing my car.

That does sound like you were repairing the car throughout the week. It could mean that it took the whole week, most of the week, or that it just spanned the entire week (perhaps with breaks in between or it was done alongside other tasks). As a complete sentence, without any other qualifying information, it sounds like a description of what occupied your time 'last week'. If you wanted it make it clear that the repair took up all of that time you should qualify it by saying something like "all of last week I was repairing my car".

Last week, I was repairing my car when I hurt my hand.

In this example, the setting for an event is 'last week'. That could mean any time in the last calendar week, or perhaps one full week (7 days) ago. It does not mean that either the repair took a week, or even a full day, just that the repair took place at some time last week and the hand incident occurred while the repair was taking place. It's an incident, within an event, within a time period.


To briefly address your second point (questions are really meant to be about 1 thing), "I was working there for 2 years" because it is a logical statement about something you were doing, and for how long.

The sentence "when I was little I was going to school" doesn't sound right because it's full of ambiguity and repetition. "When I was little" is a very vague time period, although that works fine for an anecdote where the exact time is of no consequence. It also repeats the subject and verb from the previous clause, so it just sounds rubbish. A better throwaway statement would be "I went to school when I was little". Of course, as in my example earlier, you could make the time frame a separate clause if you were expanding on the second, for example "when I was little, I was going to school one day when [something happened]".

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  • I could say 'last week I was repairing my car; this week I am fixing the roof of my shed' even if I did those things for an hour on the Mondays and Wednesdays. Mar 10 at 9:45
  • Where is the "border"? I mean it's fine to say 'last week I was repairing my car" but it's not fine when I say "When I was little I was going to school". Can you think of any vague time frame before of after which continuous starts to sound wrong? Mar 10 at 9:49
  • @trainbee282 there really isn't a hard 'border'. But when you put the time-frame as your main clause and then use the past continuous tense in a subordinate clause it sounds like you're explaining how you used the time, rather than talking about an activity and making the time-frame a secondary piece of information. "When I was little I was going to school" just feels wrong because you're talking about something past continuous the same but it's a vague time frame, so what time are you trying to fill? It sounds like you should be saying more, like in my last example.
    – Astralbee
    Mar 10 at 19:18
  • @Astralbee. One person here wrote something like "You would not use those sentences outside any context. When you say "Yesterday I was repairing my car" we are expecting an end to the sentence, e.g.: "Yesterday I was repairing my car when the phone rang and ...". It doesn't mean you have been doing something all day long but that you were doing something when something else happened. The BE-ing form only takes its meaning when contrasted with the V-ed form. What do you think about this explanation? Doesn't it make my sentence " Last week I was repairing my car" wrong?
    – Adam
    Mar 10 at 19:45
  • @Adam I haven't read other comments but agree that "last week I was repairing my car" sounds more like part of a conversation than it does a statement you'd blurt out, so yes, it would have context. Again, the opening clause of a sentence tends to be the most relevant, so this statement is more about the timing than the action. Also, the past continuous tense leaves it open-ended as to whether the action has concluded or not (ie did you finish the repair or will you be working on it this week, too?). So it's the sort of thing you might say in reply to "what did you do last week?"
    – Astralbee
    Mar 10 at 21:30

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