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What is the difference :

  1. While I cleaned the car, my wife was preparing lunch.

  2. While I was cleaning the car, my wife was preparing lunch.

The first example come from :http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/learnitv294.shtml enter image description here

The second example come from my mind .

2 Answers 2

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The only real difference is that in the first line you use the past continuous tense while in the second line you use the past tense to describe your actions with the car. The wife part is unchanged.

In general the past continuous is used to describe something that happened in the past but is still ongoing. This mostly only affects the flow of the following sentence. In some situations either will work fine but in others you may have an issue.

As was cleaning the car she prepared lunch.

The implication is that the wife completed the task while you were in the process of cleaning the car.

As I cleaned the car she prepared lunch.

Here there is no implication of who finished the task first or at what point in time the following sentence takes place, just that both things were happening at the same time.

Now follow that with something like:

When I finished I helped her prepare lunch.

It only works if she did not finish her task while yours was ongoing.

That is about the crux of it. "ed" denotes the end of something while "was - ing" denotes the task in progress. Both sentences are grammatically correct but they do have a slightly different meaning.

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  • " Here there is no implication of who finished the task first or at what point in time the following sentence takes place, just that both things were happening at the same time." the "happening at the same time" mean what ? which do you mean 1. starts cleaning and preparing at same time or 2. cleaning starts first of all or 3. preparing starts first of all ?
    – zn2015
    Feb 17, 2016 at 3:26
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The rule is you have to use a continuous tense after the conjunction 'while' because it introduces the longer of two simultaneous actions, as in

The phone rang while I was having a shower.

And if both actions are long ones, you should normally use two past continuous tenses, as in

She was doing the shopping while I was looking after the kids.

But... that is without taking into account the Anglo-Saxon obsession with concision!

It is possible, instead, to simplify the above sentence and write

She did the shopping while I looked after the kids.

In fact, you only need to use a past continuous for the longer of two simultaneous actions in the past time. If the two simultaneous actions in the past time are the same length, even if they are long ones, you can use two past simple tenses!

The reasoning goes this way: you have to use a past continuous after 'while', so 'I looked' is in fact an 'I was looking' in disguise. But you can only do this if the two actions are the same length, so 'she did' is also a 'she was doing' in disguise.

All this for the sake of writing or saying one word ('looked', 'did') instead of two ('was looking', 'was doing')!

The trouble with English is that its users keep trying to simplify it! And explaining how they make their sentences simpler can sometimes be... complicated!

For the sake of politeness, I wrote 'concision', but, to me, it verges on... laziness! Just think of 'ain't'!

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  • Or, to put it another way: there is no such rule in English, but people have made up such a rule in order to try to explain it to learners. As usually in such questions, English speakers can use either form, depending on whether they are thinking of the activity (choosing to present the activity) as continuing or not. There is a tencdnecy to use the "continuous" after while, but it is only a tendency, not a rule.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 1, 2023 at 17:39
  • @ColinFine don't you think that if the only thing you can say to a person who wants to learn your language is 'say as I say' and 'write as I write', you are not teaching them but putting them on a leash! How about a few rules to allow them to learn independently?
    – user58319
    Apr 2, 2023 at 0:17
  • And how about not representing people who, you know, speak their own native language but don't follow your made-up rules as "lazy"?
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 2, 2023 at 10:53
  • @ColinFine In fact, it is worse than laziness, it is taylorism applied to language. Take 'He went out after he had put on his coat.' versus 'He went out after he put on his coat.' In French, only the first sentence would be correct: as the action of putting on the coat is anterior to the one of going out, it needs a past perfect. But to an Anglo-Saxon mind, using a past perfect is redundant as the conjunction 'after' already indicates that anteriority. Just ditch whatever/whoever is redundant! All this for the sake of saving yourself the effort of saying or writing one more word! Sad!
    – user58319
    Apr 2, 2023 at 12:39
  • I don't know what you mean by "Taylorism". What I do know is that what is grammatical in English is what native speakers say, and what native speakers say (barring momentary mistakes, which speakers are generally well aware of) is what is grammatical. What French grammar is is 100% irrelevant to what English grammar is. There is no conscious "saving yourself the effort" - language develops organically, and distinctions and complexities which are found not to be necessary often disappear.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 2, 2023 at 14:54

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