I built a giant house of playing cards an hour ago.

Given that building it took many hours (say, three), does the sentence mean that:

I finished building a giant house of playing cards an hour ago.


I started building a giant house of playing cards an hour ago.

or something else?

  • If you say that building actually takes more than one hour, I believe the problem is with the sentence itself as the tense doesn't demonstrate what it should. But I assume it's "finished an hour ago".
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 12, 2015 at 8:30

3 Answers 3

  1. I built a giant house of playing cards an hour ago.'

..means that

I finished building a giant house of playing cards an hour ago.

There is nothing present in the original sentence to provide any clue on how long the building process lasted. The words "an hour ago" point at the moment in time when the process finished.

You might say:

I was building a giant house of playing cards an hour ago.

..this would mean that an hour ago you were engaged in the process of building a house of cards. We don't know whether you finished the work.

P.S. Some jargon

We call situations similar to that described in sentence 1 "accomplishments". An "accomplishment" describes a process, but a process that has some terminal point ("the construction is finished") beyond which the process cannot continue. That's why when "built" is used in the past tense we know that "the mission has been accomplished".

The combination "to build a house" is "telic": it has some duration but it must have an end.

There are situations in which we describe "activities" that have no inherent terminal point (they are "atelic"), like "playing the guitar":

I played the guitar an hour ago. (atelic; the playing could've continued further, there is no inherent "endpoint")

  • 1
    @user132181 - you're welcome! Feb 12, 2015 at 8:38
  • 4
    If you said, "I built houses an hour ago", I'd conclude that you were a construction worker and that you just got fired from your job an hour ago.
    – Jim
    Feb 12, 2015 at 18:27
  • 1
    This answer is great except for the end. I don't agree at all about the meaning of "I built houses an hour ago". It's an odd phrasing, so if someone said that I would ask for clarification, but if I read it then I would assume that they finished building the last of multiple houses an hour ago.
    – DCShannon
    Feb 13, 2015 at 2:43
  • @DCShannon - thanks for the comment! I cut the example, will try to come up with something more proper. Feb 13, 2015 at 5:15
  • 1
    I do not think it means I finished building. The simple past refers not to the beginning, duration, or ending of an activity, but to the (entire) activity as a point in the past. See my answer. And an hour ago refers not to the termination of the activitiy but to the ("entire") activity
    – user6951
    Feb 13, 2015 at 17:15

In practice I actually think that saying "I built a giant house of playing cards an hour ago" strongly implies that the process didn't take long and was both started and finished in a frame of time which could be roughly described as an hour ago, for example 70 minutes ago until 60 minutes ago. If it took you three hours you couldn't truthfully say you built it an hour ago, in that case you would have to say you finished it an hour ago.

  • 1
    Thanks for the comment on my answer, John! I've edited it. Feb 12, 2015 at 10:37
  • 4
    I agree - the start and end would both have to be so close together compared to the "how long ago" portion that it would work for either.
    – corsiKa
    Feb 12, 2015 at 16:07
  • Of course, if you've ever built a house of cards you know it's finicky work, and building a "giant" house of cards is likely to take quite a while. So the first answer is likely (although not guaranteed) to be correct. Feb 12, 2015 at 18:32
  • Saying that you 'finished' building the house would be a better and clearer phrasing for a long activity, but given that someone said 'built', you're still in agreement that the process would've ended an hour ago, even if you might have the wrong impression about how long it took, right?
    – DCShannon
    Feb 13, 2015 at 2:46

I built a giant house of playing cards an hour ago.

says exactly that. That is, it refers to an action completed in the past. By completed I don't mean finished, I mean accomplished.

It means 'An hour ago I accomplished the action of building a giant house of playing cards--and I am not still doing/accomplishing this action at the present time.' (The simple past strictly excludes present time.)

The simple past tense says nothing about the duration of the activity. The activitiy could have taken you three hours or three minutes. The simple past tense also says nothing about the beginning and ending point of the activitiy. It views the past action (the entirety of it) as a point in time, and can be represented as an X.

If the activity took you three minutes, you most likely wouldn't be asking the question that you are asking. You are asking this question because the activity's duration in real time is currently 3 times longer than the real time that has passed since the accomplishment.

The notion of duration (and the notions of the beginning and ending of the activity) is included in the verb activity itself (build a giant house of playing cards). It does not come from the use of the simple past.

Let's look at it from another perspective. If you say

I built a giant house of playing cards a year ago.

You are also not talking about the duration of the activity, nor about its beginning and ending points. Just about the accomplishment of an activity in its entirety in the past. And since in real time, the duration of the activity is insignificant compared to when the accomplishment occurred, the notion of what does this statement mean? does not even come up.

It is the fact that you are reporting on a three-hour activity only an hour after accomplishing it that makes you ask your question. So, here accomplishing it and finishing it are construed in your mind as being the same.

Here's another example:

I eat a leisurely breakfast over the newspaper from 7am to 10am. At 11am, a friend calls and invites me to lunch. I decline the invitation and say

I (just) ate breakfast an hour ago.

The simple past says nothing about how long (the duration) it took me to eat breakfast. It also, in and of itself, says nothing of the ending time. However, since in real time the activity was accomplished only an hour ago, the accomplishment of the entirety of the activity and the ending time of that accomplishment are synonymous.

So, in this case, I (just) ate breakfast an hour ago and I finished eating breakfast an hour ago are synonymous. But this is only fortuitous. It has to do with the passage of real time. It has nothing to do, per se, with the past simple tense.

The way to actually refer to the duration of the activity accomplished in the past is to directly tell us, like you did in your question or to use the progressive aspect.

The simple past views the past activity as a point in time, thus as an X.

The progressive past views the activity as having duration, thus it can be represented as a wavy line, ~~~~~~~~.

I built a giant house of playing cards an hour ago. It took me three hours.

still looks at the past event as a point in time X. It just so happens that, psychologically speaking, the punctiliar X is at present longer than "an hour ago". Wait a year and the X "becomes" (psychologically speaking) much more of a punctiliar activity. Although this is what it always was, as far as the simple past tense is concerned.

  • 1
    I can't tell from your answer whether you agree with John K's statement that "[I built a house an hour ago] "strongly implies that the process didn't take long and was both started and finished in a frame of time which could be roughly described as an hour ago."
    – Adam
    Feb 13, 2015 at 17:13
  • @Adam the statement means only that the action was accomplished an hour prior to saying the statement. The accomplishment is viewed as a point in time, X. It is only because the real time of 'doing the action' is at the present moment so long compared to how much time has passed since the accomplishment that, psychologically speaking, the accomplishment of the activitiy and the start, process, and finishing of it are construed as being equivalent.
    – user6951
    Feb 13, 2015 at 17:43
  • 1. "By completed I don't mean finished, I mean accomplished." - Do you mean to say that "an accomplishment has, roughly speaking, two phases, pre-terminal (activity) and terminal (punctual, achievement)", and the adjunct "an hour ago" calls for a shorter pre-terminal phase? 2. I don't understand this: "But this is only fortuitous." (about the breakfast). This must be awkward, not fortuitous. The breakfast lasted too long: the adjunct "an hour ago" calls for a "compressed activity phase". Or is it fortuitous with breakfast but not so with building a house.. It's hard for me to get. Feb 13, 2015 at 20:57
  • @CopperKettle I'll get back with you on this later.
    – user6951
    Feb 14, 2015 at 2:11

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