English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What is the difference in meanings of the following pairs of sentences? It's very confusing to me.

  1. a. I have lived in Paris for 4 years.
    b. I have been living in Paris for 4 years.

  2. a. I lived in Paris for 4 years.
    b. I had lived in Paris for 4 years.

  3. a. I had lived in Paris for 4 years.
    b. I had been living in Paris for 4 years.

Will there be any difference in meanings if I do not write "for 4 years" in each of the above sentences?

share|improve this question

closed as not a real question by TimLymington, Kristina Lopez, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, tchrist, FumbleFingers Jun 3 '13 at 1:37

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

The clarifying prepositional phrase is optional. They can all refer to the same set of facts, but each one can also mean different things, depending on context. – John Lawler May 30 '13 at 20:02
This question would be better on English Language Learners. – TimLymington May 30 '13 at 21:11

There's not always a difference, but a good rule of thumb is that the simple tense places more emphasis on the action, while the continuous places more emphasis on the result.

Out of your examples, 1a and 1b are interchangeable. But sometimes they aren't:

  • I have read The Great Gatsby.
  • I have been reading The Great Gatsby.

See the difference?

2a and 2b are not interchangeable, but they are also not simple perfect and continuous perfect. They are past tense and past perfect tense. If I ask you, "Have you ever been to Paris?" 2a would satisfactorily answer my question. 2b, on the other hand, would leave me wondering about the rest of the story.

3a and 3b can be interchangeable (and are simple and continuous), but they have subtle differences. I would start a story that ends somewhere other than Paris with 3a and start a story that continues in Paris with 3b.

share|improve this answer
+1 Excellent examples – TrevorD May 31 '13 at 11:43

Here's a quick and dirty explanation, couched in non-technical terms. Let's assume you are speaking each sentence in the year 2013. In 1a, then, [I have lived in Paris for 4 years] the implication is

Either you have lived elsewhere prior to 2009, or someone asked you in 2013 "Where have you lived previously?" or "Tell me about the places you've lived since 1998?"

Number 1b [I have been living in Paris for 4 years] could be an answer to the question

"Where have you lived since 2009?" or "How long have you been living in France?"

Number 2a [I lived in Paris for 4 years] describes

A person who has lived in two or more locations prior to 2013, and one location happens to be Paris.

Number 2b [I had lived in Paris for 4 years] begs to be followed up with, for example,

". . . when I realized I could live there no longer."

Similarly, 3a [ I had lived in Paris for 4 years] begs the question

"What happened after you had lived in Paris for four years?" and you say, "Well, after I had lived in Paris for 4 years, I decided to stay another 4 years."

Number 3b [I had been living in Paris for 4 years] could be followed up with

". . . when I realized I would live there the rest of my life," or ". . . when I decided to move to Florence."

share|improve this answer

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.