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I and my friend have been reading a few passages and after reading, there has been a debate between me and my friend over some verbs in the passages. The debate is whether the verb tenses of the passages have an implicit meaning contrary to what their tenses are.

An example:

It was a terrible life for little children. Many of them became ill and died.

I say that the verb of the example context is simply expressing simple past, a thing that happened in the past and is not longer happening. But my friend says although the verb tense structure is simple past, it has an implicit past progressive meaning, which means there was an ongoing process of children becoming ill and die in the past.

Another example:

Charles Dickens wrote books in those days.

The meaning of the above context according to the verb, which is simple past tense, is that Charles Dickens wrote some books in those days, just that.

However, my friend says that the meaning of the example context above is that Charles Dickens used to write books in those days, in another words, it was his job and he used to do this on an ongoing task.

I'm so confused and I don't know which of us is right.

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The simple past tense describes actions or events as

occurrences at a particular moment in time in the past

I dropped the egg on the floor and it cracked.

or

as an activity that happened, or a condition that existed, throughout a period of time in the past

People danced the Charleston in the 1920s.

IMPORTANT: You need to understand how throughout and ongoing differ in their meanings.

The past continuous describes actions or events in the process of happening, that is, as ongoing actions.

Simple past:

I sang in a choir when I was a boy. [sang: throughout that time]

Past continuous:

I was singing the song when my voice cracked on the high note. [was singing: ongoing; cracked: single moment in time]

The chick is about to hatch. The eggshell is cracking open.

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The simple past is mainly used about a single or completed action:

I kicked him. (single action)

I wrote a letter. (completed action)

This usage is normally obvious from the context. There are also cases when there is an implied duration, and these are two examples.

In the first sentence the verb "was" is an example of a "stative verb": other examples are "seem", "like", "prefer" and "have". They are often used in the simple present or simple perfect to refer to a state or condition that is fairly static or unchanging.

"Write" in the second sentence is an example of using a a simple past or present verb to describe a habitual action. Other examples are "smoke" and "ride".

You would say

He wrote books.

He smoked.

to indicate a habitual action. Compare that with these obviously completed actions:

He smoked a cigarette.

He wrote a book.

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