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Previously, I asked the question about words of place where one was born but not raised. In the question, I wrote:

I know a girl who was born in Melbourne but she was raised in Japan. Then she moved to China and had been living there for a few years.

Because the girl no longer lives in China but she used to live in China, so I wrote "She had been living there for a few years".

I had been thinking for a while whether I should write "she was living in China for a few years, or she had been living in China for a few years", because our non-native English teacher used to tell us that, "Both present and past perfect continuous tenses must be followed by the preposition "for." I followed her rule, and I chose to write "she had been living there for a few years".

But I am so confused now.
Is it wrong to use the preposition "for" in this past continuous tense:

She was living in China for a few years.

Thank you.

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    I would say: "Then she moved to China and lived there for a few years". "Was living" puts an emphasis on the continuity of the process. – CowperKettle Dec 10 '15 at 11:21
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Past continuous tense expresses that an action happened over a period of time. A for preposition will tell how long. It's perfectly valid.

Comparing it with present continuous tense, present continuous in English is a bit weird, because it can be connected to an understood "shortly before and after now" period of time.

I am going to the store.

This means right now, you are on your way to the store (e.g. you have just left, or you are literally walking out the door to go to the store now). It can also mean you are about to go to the store in the very next moment.

I go to the store.

Simple present in English sounds like you are narrating actions as they happen, and sounds awkward if not in such a context.

You can qualify present continuous with for like past continuous. If you do this, you are usually saying how long something will be happening, or is expected to happen. It will mean a future time even though the tense is a present tense.

I am working for 2 hours, then coming home.

I am going to be on that job in 2 weeks.

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If you absolutely wanted to use: She was living in China for a few years, it would be more effective for you to explicitly define the period by saying

She was living in China between 20xx and 20xx,
She was living in China when she had her first child

or something similar. If not, you could just say "She lived in China for a few years".

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    In the first example, it should be "...between 20xx and 20xx", not to; also, it sounds odd to specify that they are years, as that's obvious by the context. – Steve Melnikoff Dec 10 '15 at 16:43
  • Thank you, @SteveMelnikoff. Corrections noted and appreciated. – Ashwin Dec 15 '15 at 3:51
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Normally the past continuous tense describes a scene in the past, not a period of time to describe how long a situation lasted.

When you want to indicate a period of time and describe the cause of something in the past, you use the past perfect continuous and for:

My friend was tired. She had been living in China for a few years.

The past continuous still indicates that something (a short action) interrupted a longer action.

She was living in China when her father died.
——(longer action) ——— (interruption)

2

The phrase "had been living" is in the past perfect continuous tense. As explained at edufind.com, this tense is suitable "for actions that were going on in the past up until another action in the past happened."

In other words, at some point in the past, action A occurred, and before that, action B (the one in the past perfect continuous tense) was occurring. When I read the sentence below, therefore, I expect it to be followed by a description of an event that happened a few years after the girl moved to China:

Then she moved to China and had been living there for a few years.

The event could be something that put an end to the action of living in China:

Then she moved to China and had been living there for a few years when she moved back to Melbourne.

Alternatively, the girl might have continued living in China after the other event:

Then she moved to China and had been living there for a few years when she met An. Fifteen months later they were married and had rented an apartment in Shanghai.

In fact, based solely on the statement that "she moved to China and had been living there for a few years," it is possible that the girl is still living there.

For your intended meaning (that the girl lived in China but no longer does), I think it would usually be preferable to use the simple past tense, which is suitable "for actions starting and ending in the past." For example:

Then she moved to China and lived there for a few years.

Even this is not totally unambiguous, because sometimes people use the simple past tense to describe an action that occurred during a period of time in the past, but then state that the action occurred during a subsequent period as well:

My head ached terribly before dinner. It ached terribly during and after dinner, too.

If the girl still lived in China, however, you would more likely have written something like

Then she moved to China a few years ago and has been living (or has lived) there ever since.

A way to eliminate any remaining ambiguity is to continue telling the story of what happened next:

Then she moved to China and lived there for a few years. Then she moved back to Melbourne.

Alternatively:

Then she moved to China and lived there for a few years, but now she is back in Melbourne.

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These are all equivalent:

She lived in China for a few years
She had lived in China for a few years
She had been living in China for a few years.

These sentences emphasize that a definite period of time passed (unspecified) when she lived there. Although the act of living someplace implies passage of time, there is more emphasis with these wordings. They all can stand on their own as statements. The ambiguous part is whether or not she continued to live there.

She was living in China for a few years

Means while she lived there, less emphasis on a period of time than the other sentences, but it can also mean during the time she lived in China. Hearing the phrase on its own, the listener would ask What happened while she was living in China? It is still ambiguous whether she continued to live there for a while and then stopped or stayed and is living there now, it would need to be qualified by another statement.

She was living in China for a few years, when she visited the Great Wall.
She was living in China for a few years, before moving back to Australia.

Was living also sounds more casual, to me, more conversational than written.

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    Your first three sentences are not equivalent. "She had been living in China for a few years" gives the implication that the time of the statement occurring—as if narrating a story—was at some point in the middle of her stay in China. It puts the listener into a frame of mind expecting an event to be related that occurred then, such as "She had been living in China for a few years when she realized that she had never tried Fried Mashi". And, for all we know, she lived in China for the rest of her life—this does not state the duration of her stay there. – ErikE Dec 10 '15 at 18:16
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    On the other hand, the first sentence, "She lived in China for a few years" implies completion—the total duration of her stay was a few years. It happened at some point in the past and has now concluded, and she no longer lives there. There is no sense of bringing the listener to a particular point in time in order to anchor the time of an occurrence about to be revealed. – ErikE Dec 10 '15 at 18:18
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    The second sentence, "She had lived in China for a few years" also is not the same as the other two. This sentence can be used to imply completion and focus on the binary state of her few-years-in-China-living, e.g., "She told us she had never been to China but we found out that she had lived in China for a few years." It can also be used like the third sentence, with a "when", but again is focused on the binary completion, the state of having done so or not, rather than locating the events to a particular time. – ErikE Dec 10 '15 at 18:21
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    Last, "She was living in China for a few years, when she visited the Great Wall" and its companion sentence are awkward. They should not have commas in them. And "was living" is incorrect for anchoring the visitation. The correct sentence is "She had been living in China for a few years when she visited the Great Wall." instead, "she was living ... for a few years" stands alone, locating her general whereabouts, and does not extend to narrating other events. For example, "We wondered where our college friend Ann had disappeared to when we learned that she was living in China for a few years." – ErikE Dec 10 '15 at 18:25

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