What is the difference between the past continuous and the simple past usage of these sentences?

  1. They were fighting Nazis for three days.


  1. They fought Nazis for three days.

Can we use them both interchangeably? Or would past continuous in #1 would be right?

  • It is difficult to determine from your question exactly what it is that you do not understand. Can you rephrase it to make it more clear? Consider asking about the difference between two specific sentences or usages., not two lists of them. Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 8:10
  • @Policwala - have you read and understood the post at this link? Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 8:24
  • @P.E.Dant - Thank you so much for that link. How did you find it? There is still so much for me to learn about this site. Also, after reading your comments at the link provided, I wondered if you realize you can go back and delete your comments at any time. Just a thought. Again, thank you! I had no idea there were "Canonical" posts lurking in the depths of ELL. Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 16:08
  • @MarkHubbard On the contrary, I am proud to have found and pointed out even a mere crumb of usage which is open to question in the work of the man, the legend, the monument who is StoneyB. Although he deigns to agree with my analysis, let my comment be as a beacon to later readers. How to find such content? Click links, poke around, click more links. It's hypertext! Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 18:13

2 Answers 2


Even though fight is understood to refer to a series of interactions which take time to run their course (the sense of the ongoingness is implicit on the semantic level), that does not prevent us from choosing a verb form which emphasizes the ongoing aspect grammatically.

The progressive marks the verb as action-in-progress.

The choice of verb form affects how we understand temporal phrases added to the sentence.

The dog salivated when the bell rang.

The dog was salivating when the bell rang.

In the first, the bell rings and then the dog salivates.

In the second, the dog was already salivating when the bell rang.

  • I love the example with the dog, but it does not seem to be applicable to the OPs example, as there is no cause/reaction relationship.
    – gexicide
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 13:28
  • The cause/reaction is irrelevant to the point I made about how some temporal phrases are understood differently, depending on the choice of simple or progressive.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 13:43
  • 1
    The dog balanced a clove of garlic on his head when told to fetch the newspaper (dumb dog). The dog was balancing a clove of garlic on his head when told to fetch the newspaper (clever dog).
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 13:45
  • TRomano sir, I have read in Grammar books that past progressive doesn't work as a complete sentence, but as part of a sentence. So according to this view are the above sentences wrong? They would be correct in the following way I was living here for two months before I found out how to turn on the shower. Please help me. Thanks.
    – Policewala
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 16:06
  • 1
    If that is what the grammar books said, they were wrong. But perhaps you misunderstood the point they were making? It is not much of a sentence to say I was sleeping but it no less a sentence than I slept.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 16:13

The difference:


No, they are not interchangeable.

Your first sentence does not specify or imply a termination of the event. Although everyone knows that the Nazis were indeed defeated, your sentence makes it... debatable. There's room for interpretation when you don't have a terminating statement.

The second sentence does indeed terminate. They fought Nazis. It's in the past tense and there's not implication of the fighting still happening.

  • dockreyZ, I really like your answer. In "They fought Nazis for three days", the point of view is now, whereas in "They were fighting Nazis" for three days, what is the Point of view? Is it still now? I am confused. Also, in present tense it would be wrong to say 'I am reading this book three days', it must be "I have been reading this book for three days". When present progressive can't be used this way in present tense, then how can past progressive be used in the above sense?
    – Policewala
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 16:14
  • @Policewala In "They were fighting," the point of view is still the present. The continuous implies that the action was ongoing in the past. Your question about present continuous is a separate question. Consider asking it separately! Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 23:02

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