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I'm curious of the meaning of the usage of the past tense in this example:

I was the last to leave the office last night.

The first option:

Everybody else had gone home when I left

The second:

Everybody else had gone home when I was leaving

I know that the right answer is the first ("I left"), but it seems a little bit strange to me, since I would rather stress that by the time of leaving the office was empty. In other words I would underline the action prior to which everybody had left the office. But "left" implies the result and seems to be queer.

  • By the time I left the office, everyone else had gone home (already). By the time I was leaving the office, everyone else had gone home (already). The idea you want to express is expressed by "by the time". The word when is too vague to do that clearly. Or you can use "when" but then already becomes necessary, not an option. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 28 '16 at 21:26
  • So one of the two options is supposed to follow the first sentence? – Alan Carmack Apr 28 '16 at 21:26
  • I've heard that 'leave' is a short duration verb, 'be leaving' means 'you are gonna leave' not mean 'you are in the action of leaving'. You left or you did not, – wolfrevo Apr 29 '16 at 9:09
  • Yes, one of them should follow the first – Dmitrii Apr 29 '16 at 13:40
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"...when I left" is the version that sounds much more natural and sensible to this native English speaker.

"...when I was leaving" is the past continuous tense, used for ongoing actions in the past. To me, it implies "while I was in the action of leaving". But "Everyone else had gone home while I was in the action of leaving" doesn't really make sense, because it sounds like they left while you were leaving, but you said they were already gone.

What the others did - "Everyone else had gone home" - is in the past perfect tense, which is used for actions that were completed in the past, before another point in time. This is why it doesn't fit well with "when I was leaving", and does fit well with "when I left". "When I left" is a point in time; "when I was leaving" is a span of time.

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The past perfect "had gone home" establishes the temporal relationship of everyone else's departure to your own. They left before you did. It doesn't matter whether you say "when I left" or "when I was leaving".

From the past continuous "was leaving", one might—might—infer that you noticed as you were leaving that they had already gone. The past continuous there wants some explanation for its use, and inference fills that void.

If you want to state clearly and unambiguously that everyone else had departed before you did yourself ( e.g. as you would in legal testimony) you could say:

By the time I left, everyone else had already gone home.

  • From the past continuous "was leaving", one might—might—infer that you noticed as you were leaving that they had already gone. That's exactly how I see the situation, since I see no other way of finding out whether the office was empty or not. It's like you have to explore the whole building to find out how many people are in. So since you have to work INSTEAD of sauntering, there was no way of figuring out that the office had been empty. And only when you are leaving the office you notice "Oh,well it seems that everybody has gone home" – Dmitrii Apr 29 '16 at 13:35
  • Does it make any sence? – Dmitrii Apr 29 '16 at 13:44
  • No, I must say that it doesn't make sense. How you determine that everyone has gone is not relevant to the choice of tense. Maybe you have an infrared scanner or a grizzly bear's olfactory sense. Maybe everyone had "clocked out". The continuous leaving merely emphasizes act-in-progress. It doesn't suggest sauntering or meandering. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 29 '16 at 16:00

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