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I'm trying to explain the difference in meaning of the following sentences:

a When Joe arrived, I'd made some coffee.
b When Joe arrived, I made some coffee.
c When Joe arrived, I was making some coffee.
d When Joe arrived, I'd been making some coffee.


a Pretty self-explanatory use of past perfect.
b How can I decide which action happened first?
c This is an interruption. Right after Joe arrived, the continuous action of making coffee was interrupted.
d This explains how long a past action had been in progress.

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B: When Joe arrived, I made some coffee.

This means the two actions, Joe arriving and you making coffee are happening simultaneously (at the same time). It is alright to use this when explaining something loosely since it rarely will actually matter if you made coffee before or after Joe arrives. If you do need to specify which action is happening or first, use option a or

After Joe arrived, I made coffee.

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    I'm not sure I agree that the two actions necessarily happened simultaneously. Most native speakers, I think, would take it to mean that I made coffee because Joe arrived, even though the sentence doesn't actually technically state that. Consider "when the vase fell from the shelf, it shattered into a thousand pieces" or "when the ship carrying the Crown Prince arrived, the citizens celebrated" - clearly one is the cause of the other, although we don't explicitly say so. – stangdon Dec 15 '15 at 12:52
  • "When Joe arrived, I began to make some coffee" could be simultaneous. But "make" takes time. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 16 '15 at 2:57
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B means: after Joe arrived, and then I made coffee.
When did you make coffee?
When Joe arrived.

One can imagine the conversation:

Joe: Hey Sunbreaker!
You: Hey Joe! Want a cup of coffee?
Joe: Sure, if it's not a problem
You: No problem at all, I'll make some now. How do you like it?

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Keep it simple.

"a. When Joe arrived, I'd made some coffee," doesn't make sense to me, because the phrases are unrelated. "I had made some coffee before Joe arrived" sounds much better.

"b. When Joe arrived, I made some coffee," is perfectly clear usage; e. g., "When my friend Joe arrived at my place, I made some coffee for us to drink together."

"c. When Joe arrived, I was making some coffee" is not necessarily an interruption. "Making coffee" is almost always at least partly automated or passive and does not require constant attention, even if you are just boiling the coffee grounds over a campfire; once boiling, you stir the grounds and move the pot to a cooler spot on the fire to let it simmer for a few minutes. On the stove, you turn down the heat to simmer. With a drip-coffee maker, you pour the boiling water over the ground coffee in the filter and let it drip into a cup beneath. Coffee-making machines often require no attention during the process at all. So "When Joe arrived, I was making some coffee" simply describes what you were doing when Joe arrived.

"d. When Joe arrived, I'd been making some coffee," sounds odd and unnecessarily wordy to a native English speaker. Again, "I had made some coffee before Joe arrived" sounds much more natural.

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