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Here is the sentence.

Where were you yesterday? - I was at home the whole day. - How strange. I (ring) you up at two o'clock, but nobody answered.

The Past Simple would be: I rang you up at two o'clock, but nobody answered.

The Past Continuous would be: I was ringing you up at two o'clock, but nobody answered.

I am wondering why the authors of the grammar book where I took the sentence from tell me that I have to use the Past Simple. In my opinion the Past Continuous is more appropriate, for we have the exact moment of the action in the past.

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    For the benefit of people who aren't sure what you mean by past simple/continuous, can you please edit your question to include a complete sentence for each option? – Max Williams Mar 11 '16 at 14:42
  • No problems Max, It's done. – Dmitrii Mar 11 '16 at 14:45
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As explained by englishpage.com, using the past continuous "was ringing" here would imply that the person had been ringing prior to 2 o'clock and was still doing so when 2 o'clock arrived. This is obviously not the case, which is why you use the past simple "rang". The relevant example with a similar usage:

"the Past Continuous is interrupted by a shorter action in the Simple Past. However, you can also use a specific time as an interruption."

Last night at 6 PM, I was eating dinner.

Note that had the person ringing been interrupted, past continuous would have been appropriate. To wit:

I was ringing you at 2 o'clock when someone knocked on the door.

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  • So glad to see that you struck "up" from the final sentence! Would you agree that "I was ringing you up at 2 o'clock' just doesn't sit well? I mean that while "I was ringing up clients at 2 o'clock" works (for placing call after call), "I was ringing up my girlfriend at 2 o'clock" begs some other interpretation (repeated action on a singular object). That's how I hear it, but Americans don't use the verb for phone calls so often. – Egox Mar 11 '16 at 21:47
  • @Egox I know that in British English at least (or Scottish in my case) we can either take or leave the "up". It's pretty much a case of if you leave it out it's kind of silently implied anyway, but I agree that some sentences sound a little off if you include it. – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 22:02
  • I seem to remember being taught that the 'up' and the 'ing' would be in conflict here, the action continuing but also being repeated, or if not repeated completed...which is to say that 'I rang him up' says that he answered the phone, doesn't it? Unless, of course, I say 'I tried to ring him up.' I'm genuinely curious how a Scott would see this. – Egox Mar 11 '16 at 22:20
  • I can get behind the rationale of the two cancelling each other out, but as far as I know where I'm from we'd be equally happy saying "I was ringing you" or "I was ringing you up". Let's introduce another spanner to the works here: this can also mean scanning someone's goods in a shop. ;) – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 22:32
  • Yeah, but ringing someone up in a shop involves 'up' not to carry the action but to repeat it again and again. This is like 'ringing up clients' to me, and would sound fine in the sentence 'I was ringing him up, when the cash register (till) just went dead.' – Egox Mar 11 '16 at 22:48
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I think the book's authors were trying to convey that the action is a simple, finished, short one - not continuous. Someone went to a door/bell, and rang(some). That's an action done in the past. Past simple gets my vote too.

The door also cannot ring continuously - actually the ring/buzzer/signal/whatever of it(!) can, but that's a technicality and calls for a different verb than ring.

It also has to do with how the two parts of the sentence are joined - with a but. But carries a "negative" counterpart to the first part of the sentence. As John Clifford said in his answer, interruption would mean the sentence would be phrased differently, and "was ringing" acceptable.

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  • The example wasn't actually a ring of a doorbell, but a phone call: hence "rang you up". – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 14:50
  • I do not see mention of any phone, anywhere. Contextually phone does work better, admittedly. That bit is left ambiguous, so it can mean doors as well. Answer the door is also a valid scenario. You know, big houses. – Sakatox Mar 11 '16 at 14:52
  • It might be a cultural difference, but I've never heard "I rang you up" used to refer to someone ringing a doorbell. It's always been when they were making a phone call. – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 14:53
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    As learnersdictionary.com tells - ring up [phrasal verb] - chiefly British to make a telephone call to someone or something – Dmitrii Mar 11 '16 at 14:56
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    It's a semantic nitpick and irrelevant to the accuracy of the answer anyway .I just enjoy debating with intelligent people. :) – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 15:06

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