They had driven ten miles when the car broke down.

They had been driving ten miles when the car broke down.

I am sure that the first sentence is correct. The second action happened when they had already covered ten miles. But I wonder if the second sentence is possible.

  • 1
    First sentence gives the idea of completion. The second one the idea of a temporary situation, namely, how long the action had been in progress, or as the action that was in progress before another action in the past.
    – Schwale
    Feb 29, 2016 at 19:52
  • You should know what is confusing , it's "ten miles "
    – V.V.
    Feb 29, 2016 at 20:29
  • The second one strikes my ear as odd, with miles. I expect "They had been driving for ten minutes when..." "They had been walking only a few feet when his shoelace came untied" is ungrammatical, to my ear. Feb 29, 2016 at 21:08
  • Good question. "Covered" is an important word in your question. Feb 29, 2016 at 23:54

4 Answers 4


Both are fully grammatical, and both are completely natural. As with many questions about the use of perfect and continuous aspects in English, the difference is not about the circumstances but about how the speaker is choosing to refer to the temporal structure of the situation.

The first treats the driving as something which had finished (stopped) when the breakdown occurred. The second treats the driving as a process which was continuing through the breakdown. Both are equally valid, but give a slightly different flavour.


I prefer:

They had been driving (for) ten miles when the car broke down.

This one is better because there is an implication that they would have driven further, but could not because the car broke down.

As @Ustanak said, the first one is not clear. Perhaps they drove ten miles (let's say to the store and back). Then the next time they started the car, it wouldn't.
More context is needed here.

  • Would you deem "for" necessary?
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 29, 2016 at 20:52
  • 1
    @IͶΔ Probably because to show how long the situation had been in progress, then it's used as a period.
    – Schwale
    Feb 29, 2016 at 20:57
  • @Ustanak Actually it's a bit late here and I'm dense; I'm trying to figure out whether "They had been driving ten miles when the car broke down." (without the "for" prep) makes clear sense. It's tense and the impossibles are much rarer than they seem, so I dunno. O_o
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 29, 2016 at 21:01
  • @IͶΔ I put "for" in () to indicate it should be optional. It is clearer to me when used that a period of time is involved.
    – user3169
    Feb 29, 2016 at 22:16

Only a few miles....only a few feet... etc are not durational measurements but "completional" (maybe that word doesn't exist) and as such are incompatible with the progressive/continuous. They're compatible with the perfect.

not OK The new skyscraper had been rising for only ten storeys when the steelworkers went on strike.

not OK I had been eating only three bites when I chipped a tooth.

not OK I had been taking only three sips when a fly landed in my glass.

not OK I had been climbing only three rungs when the ladder gave out.

OK I had been watching the show only three minutes when the TV went dark.

OK I had been taking that detour for only three weeks when the bridge was re-opened.

OK I had been snoozing in the back of the lecture hall for only three lectures when the news came that the professor had quit teaching to become a race-car driver.


To simple build on what has already been said, native speakers of English often opt for the past perfect continuous over the simple past perfect to place more emphasis on the actual activity. Your second example places more importance on the driving than the first example.

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