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I couldn't do anything for/during the rest of the day.

I know that for sounds correct, perhaps because "the rest of the day" is a finite chunk of time like "one hour" or "one week".

However, I am struggling to explain to my colleague (who speaks English as a second language) why during can't be used instead.

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Because [most native Anglophones would say "for"](during the rest,for the rest), it sounds better, more natural. There's no grammatical reason not to say "during". –  user21497 Apr 17 '13 at 0:57
    
But you could say, "during the remaining hours of the day." –  Jim Apr 17 '13 at 1:01
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2 Answers

"During" indicates that something is happening at the same time as some other ongoing action. Notice that this includes the implication that something is actively happening. So you might say you were doing something during the baseball game. For example, "I was knitting a sweater during the baseball game." But you would not say that something DIDN'T happen during the baseball game, because something not happening is not an ongoing process, and does not require any time at all.

"I couldn't do anything" is a simple statement of non-action; it requires no duration, and so it does not require the use of the word "during." "For" is the way we summarize the entire period of time (the rest of the day) in a single lump, without emphasizing the ongoing duration of it.

To reiterate, the two words indicate a difference between action and non-action, but even more importantly, they also refer to different ways of looking at the period of time involved. During, which really means "within the duration of," typically refers to an event or an action (such as "the baseball game"), which occurs within or delineates a period of time, rather than any period of time itself. "For" refers to some period of time itself ("for the entire year," "for a whole week"), rather than events or actions.

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@johnMlandsberg Slightly nit-picking, but you could, for example, say that something didn't happen during if you were discussing when it did happen (e.g. That didn't happen during the game: it happened immediately afterwards) –  TrevorD May 17 '13 at 12:04
    
@TrevorD I agree with you, and it's not nit-picking. I would say the usage in that case does require the reference to duration (it didn't happen any time within the time span of the game) and so during is the way to say it. –  John M. Landsberg May 18 '13 at 18:12
    
@JohnM.Landsberg - I think your second paragraph is more on target than the first. "I couldn't do X during the baseball game" sounds perfectly fine to me, even though it reflects a non-action. I think it's more about the specific/finite duration of the baseball game versus the vaguer timeframe involving the rest of the day. –  Lynn May 18 '13 at 20:27
    
@Lynn Interesting point, Lynn, and I agree. But notice how a rephrasing of the reference to the game would influence our choice of "during" vs. "for": "I couldn't do X for the duration of the game." "I couldn't do X for the whole time the game was on." Yes, you can choose "during" in these sentences, but I think the inclination goes in the direction of "for" simply because the reference in these sentences is to time, rather than to the event itself, even though the duration is exactly the same, and as definite, as when we refer to the game rather than the time of the game. –  John M. Landsberg May 19 '13 at 5:33
    
@JohnM.Landsberg - Yeah, there's some subtle distinction here but I can't quite put my finger on it. –  Lynn May 19 '13 at 12:21
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As @Bill points out, for is more natural sounding (in this case) than during. There are many examples of grammatically correct structures that we refrain from using. For example: I eat. As far as grammar goes, this is a valid sentence. But it just doesn't sound that natural or right (unless you happen to want to state that eating is one of the things you routinely do).

So it wouldn't be technically correct for you to say, "it can't be used," but it might be safe to say "it should not be used."

And for helping your colleague to accept this fact, refer him to this ngram: enter image description here

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That may not be an accurate ngram. Well thought-out search terms produce good results- as for the rest of the search attempts, I'd be careful using them. –  Jim Apr 17 '13 at 4:14
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