Yesterday an American friend of mine shuttered my world by saying that these three tenses (past continuous, past simple, present perfect continuous) are interchangeable in American English.

So if I were to say, for instance, to a friend who showed up on my doorstep an hour later than we arranged:

I was waiting for you for an hour!


I waited for you for an hour!

that would be as grammatically correct as

I've been waiting for you for an hour!

Is it always acceptable to use past continuous or past simple instead of present perfect continuous? I guess it's perfectly normal in an informal conversation but would it be just as good in formal context (i.e. an official letter, a paper etc)?

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    I believe you meant to say that your friend "shattered" your world, although I have trouble grasping how a simple point about grammar could be earth-shattering, even in a figurative sense.
    – DavidC
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 19:52
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    You should ask basic questions about the relationship of tense and aspect on English Language Learners.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 20:12
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    This part "I asked if these tenses could be interchanged in most situations - more specifically, if it's acceptable to use PS or PP any time instead of PPC" sounds to me like you're thinking that the relationships between situations and tenses/aspects are one-to-one, but that's not how it really works. Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 23:32
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    I don't have a single article that covers all of it, or frankly, a good portion of it, that is any better than a common website for ELLs. (If you really want to get to the bottom of it, imho, you can expect several books.) The hint in my first comment comes from my own experience. The fact that you never saw any of this in textbooks makes a lot of sense. Because I haven't seen the matter covered satisfactorily in a short article before. The best book I've found that covers deep enough details about English verbs (tenses and aspects) is Meaning and the English Verb by Geoffrey Leech. Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 0:03
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    On the other hand, if you only want to know why in that specific situation, the three alternatives can work equally well, I believe that either ELU or ELL can answer your question well enough. But the Q&A format is perhaps not ideal to cover all of them in all possible, general cases. (This is not to say that it's impossible; I believe it may be possible that someone could point it out in a few short paragraphs. I'd like to read such an answer, too.) Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 0:07

2 Answers 2


There are several categories of appropriateness: appropriate for writing and speech, appropriate for writing, appropriate for speech, and appropriate for neither. (Of course, the lines between them are not always clear.) For various reasons, it's much easier to find written explanations of what is appropriate for writing (or both writing and speech) than of what is appropriate in speech. Paradoxically, what happens in informal circumstances is sometimes only studied formally (by academics).

As you noted in your answer, all three sentences are quite appropriate for speech, whose importance is not to be minimized, because there are many possible utterances that are not. I think that's because in each case, you can come up with an interpretation in which the meaning is actually correct:

I was waiting for you for an hour! (Then I turned around, and you were there.)

I waited for you for an hour! (Then I turned around, and you were there.)

The reasons they're not appropriate in writing is that (a) you have time to come up with the most fitting way to describe what just happened and (b) you are writing in a medium that makes it a little less obvious what's going on (because the reader can't see you), so you're expected to put in extra effort.


As far as I can tell, it is not grammatically correct. Present Perfect Continuous denotes an action in the past that continues right up to the present or has just completed.

I've yet to find any reputable grammar source (American or not) affirming that Past Simple or Past Continuous convey this meaning.

People (including native speakers) simply use all kinds of bad grammar -- especially when we speak colloquially.

  • The thing is that she claims to be a Grammar Nazi and says that it's grammatically correct.
    – D4RKS0UL
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 19:48
  • @D4RKS0UL Well then, I think it's up to her to step up and back up the assertion with a reputable source.
    – A.P.
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 20:02
  • it's exactly the problem - there are so few books on the grammar of American English it's just confounding.
    – D4RKS0UL
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 20:26
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    @D4RKS0UL All three are perfectly grammatical because they are things that one native speaker could produce in that circumstance and have it clearly understood by another native speaker without loss of meaning or intent. And as Peter Shor notes, they all mean pretty much the same thing in actual day-to-day practice for this scenario. Furthermore, this is not something unique to the United States; it’s just how English is.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 20:36
  • The thing is that I got my initial knowledge about English tenses from R. Murphy's textbook and it was pretty rigid on that matter. Some may argue that it's not that advanced a book but I've studied with Advanced Grammar In Use and there's no mention of this as well. It's not that obvious a thing for a foreigner. The fact that no one did as much as put an asterisk with a single line that sometimes these tenses could be interchanged is a shocker (since otherwise those two are very thorough textbooks).
    – D4RKS0UL
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 20:59

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