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In one Russian discussion group devoted to ESL, I was advised that using when with continuous tenses is incorrect in English.

To be exact, we were discussing how to translate a phrase about one’s former collegue. So two possible translations were:

  1. When we worked together she was (used to be) nice.
  2. When we were working together she was nice (to me).

I do agree that using simple tenses might be a better choice here. The question is whether the use of continuous tenses is always a mistake — is it?

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I don't see a single thing wrong with "When we were working together, she was nice." It sounds perfectly idiomatic to my ear. –  Malvolio Nov 26 '12 at 20:01
    
Contin u ous, not as spelt in the title. –  Kris Nov 27 '12 at 6:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think the important thing to keep in mind for a non-native speaker of English is that when the reference time is in the past, there are two ways to render a habitual meaning: with a simple preterite form, and with the compound past continuous form. So in general, both of the forms should be correct.

This is true, however, only for verbs whose meanings involve an action which has a palpable duration like work, live. e.g.,

  1. When I lived in Utrecht, I used to love to take walks.
  2. When I was living in Utrecht, I used to love to take walks.

For verbs with punctual meaning, like fall, only the simple preterite form is appropriate for a habitual meaning, and whenever is more appropriate than when. e.g.,

  1. Whenever I fell, Thomas would help me up. (refers to a habitual event)
  2. ?When I was falling, Thomas helped me up. (sounds odd, because it would refer to a single act of falling)
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The second sentence might sound odd because "while" not "when" is more commonly used in conjunction with the past continuous. "While" has the sense of "for a non-specific duration of time." This pairs well with the past continuous to describe an event that happened during a prolonged, non-specific time in the not-too-distant past. "When" on the other hand has the sense of "a specific time", and as such works well with the past simple.

However, in your example, there is no discernible difference because the time frame itself is non-specific to the reader. We don't know how long you worked together. As well, being nice is an action that is hard to quantify in time. Because of that, the past simple or the past continuous can describe that period of time equally well. Moreover, "when" with the past continuous has a good argument in its favor, in that we commonly use "when" with the PC when referring to "ages or periods of time in the past". An example of this would be "When I was in college, Adidas sweatpants were the fashion." Time in college is a specific period of life. Compare that to "While I was walking the dog, I remembered my mom's birthday." Walking the dog here is a non-specific time frame, and so while would be expected. In the case of your example, your employment with the woman who was nice to you could be represented as a "period of time."

Per the BBC: We also use when, not while, to talk about periods of time in the past.

In a completely different direction, the one criticism that is often levied against the past continuous is that, when used unnecessarily, it sounds long-winded.

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I disagree. It depends on the verb, or rather the meaning. This Google Ngram shows that While we were waiting is much more common than When we were waiting. But When we were growing up is much more common than While we were growing up. The words when and while mean different things; but both are used with the past continuous. For the OP's sentence, it should clearly be when. –  Peter Shor Nov 26 '12 at 21:32
    
In my previous comment, make that can be used and not are used ... I don't want to imply that you need to use past continuous with either when or while. –  Peter Shor Nov 26 '12 at 21:42
    
Considering that the idea being conveyed is that she was nice during the time they worked together, why not use while with the PC to represent that duration? I do think, though, that there is not a clear sense of time in any of the actions in the sentence, "we were working" or "she was nice". –  tylerharms Nov 26 '12 at 21:49
    
@tylerhams: Because to me "while" conveys the idea that you were working together only for a relatively short duration, whereas "when we were working together" could mean a much longer span of time. They were former colleagues, so "when" is clearly preferred. –  Peter Shor Nov 26 '12 at 21:56
    
@PeterShor: I can see them both representing equally long (or short) periods of time, and, in this particular sentence, I think they're almost interchangeable. Here is something I was reading on the BBC: bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/grammar/learnit/… I think I am going to edit my answer in light of the suggestion that "when" be used instead of "while" to refer to periods of time. –  tylerharms Nov 26 '12 at 22:04

Both are grammatical, but they view events differently. When we worked together refers to the whole of some particular period in the past. The lady concerned was nice to the speaker while they were actually working, and may have been so even when they were not working. When we were working together emphasises the fact that the lady was nice to the speaker at some time in the past only when they were engaged in joint labour, and not in any other circumstances.

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