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Miguel came to the presentation but he seemed very distracted and he __________ (not/listen) to anything that the speaker said.

This is an exercise on practicing with the form of the past continuous from Macmillan's The Business on Google Books. Knowing that sometimes we can use past simple instead of past continuous, and assuming the continuous version is apt for the example, what would the reasoning/clues be?

One could argue in favor of the past simple by saying, the example has (came, seemed, said) all in the past simple, and so it makes sense that "to not/listen" should be in the past simple "didn't listen" especially when it is in the middle of these verbs (or actions). Also "speaker said" implies that we see the situation as a whole a completed action or alternatively everything happened in the presentation as finished actions or events in the past, and not as activities in progress.

However, one could also say that the form "didn't listen" is used when someone didn't want to, and therefore the correct usage is "wasn't listening" because this is how we express the situation of not giving attention especially with something long like a lecture/presentation. Moreover, the verbs are not sequenced by "then" to warrant for a narrative and hence use past simple.

There is the possibility that either tense is perfectly fine. This happens when describing past activities that take a stated period of time, for example, I was working from to 7 AM to 7 PM yesterday. This is because we could see the activity as a completed action or event. As such, both tenses are possible. But then again, what are nuances?

  • Maybe this helps I saw him cross the street. ( I saw the whole of the action ) , I saw him crossing the street .( I saw only part of the action ) Source : my grammar book ( I am a learner as well by the way) – Mrt Nov 5 '14 at 0:26
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Both versions are 100% grammatically and idiomatically correct. They have nearly identical meanings, but offer slightly different opportunities for usage.

Miguel came to the presentation but he seemed very distracted and he did not listen to anything that the speaker said.

In this sentence, the presentation is over and we know that Miguel never paid attention.

Miguel came to the presentation but he seemed very distracted and he was not listening to anything that the speaker said.

There are two possibilities for this sentence.

  1. Alone it means exactly the same as the "did not listen" version.
  2. With some additional description of his behavior, it describes Miguel's ongoing actions during the meeting, but offers the possibility that they were interrupted at some point.

Miguel came to the presentation but he seemed very distracted and he was not listening to anything that the speaker said. However, the speaker was so skillful a lecturer that soon he was as captivated as the rest of the audience.

We would use this second version to tell the story of Miguel at the presentation if that story was more involved than "He didn't listen."

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