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I had been eating before I visited you.

I had eaten before I visited you.

How do you know when to use either of them?

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It depends largely on what you want to say,i.e. your intention. If you want to emphasize the action of eating as extending over a period of time in the past and having a specific outcome or relation to a later point in the past, so, you should use the past perfect contiuous " I had been eating before....". This means the actions of eating and visiting are close in terms of time of doing them and that you are not hungry now. However, if you just want to state what happened with you in the past chronologically, you use the past perfect "I had eaten before.....". In this case you refer to the fact that you "ate" then "visited" respectively.

1

I had been eating before I visited you describes that you were in the process of eating before you visited the person. I believe this is called past perfect continuous.

I had eaten before I visited you describes that you had already eaten before you visited the person. This is called past perfect.

  • But, in practice, what is the difference? Presumably, in both cases he had stopped eating before starting the visit? – TrevorD May 3 '16 at 17:05
  • True. However, the first statement asserts that he was doing it and the latter says that he had already done it. For instance, "I was watching telly before I went to school" and "I watched telly before I went to school" almost function the same. We can both agree on the fact that he had presumably stopped watching television, but the small difference is just how the former situation is described. To clarify, the first one states the action of doing something in the past whilst the other states that you have done something in the past. Savvy? – Alan May 3 '16 at 17:26
  • Alan, Sorry - we may be slightly at cross purposes. I'm well aware of the theoretical difference between the two. My point was really that your answer didn't really address Op's original question of "How do you know when to use either of them?". This has since been addressed in a bit more detail in the other two answers. – TrevorD May 3 '16 at 17:41
  • Perhaps. Thanks for the comments. I'm new to this whole website. I thought it seemed like a convenient place to express my inner grammar police emotions. – Alan May 3 '16 at 18:01
0

There are three possibilities here, with slight differences in meaning:

1) I ate before I visited you. - a statement of fact with no emphasis

2) I had eaten before I visited you. - so I wasn't hungry

3) I had been eating before I visited you - implies the meal was interrupted

(It's the past of: Why is your tongue red? I've been eating chili peppers.)

In other words, one action has an effect on another action.

(If I hadn't gone to visit you at that moment, I would've finished my meal.)

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