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In the third century BC, when Roman ambassadors were negotiating with the Greek city of Tarentum, an ill-judged laugh put paid to any hope of peace. Ancient writers disagree about the exact cause of the mirth…(Confronting The Classics, by Mary Beard)

The meaning of the second part of the sentence is unclear to me. The first part uses past progressive tense, whereas the second uses past, should not the tenses be the same?

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Are you wondering what the idiom "put paid to" means? In this idiom, "paid" is not a verb. If you don't know the meaning of the idiom and are trying to analyze "paid" as a verb, it is not surprising that you are confused.

What this clause means is:

an ill-judged laugh destroyed any hope of peace.

Answering the question you asked, rather than the question which I answered above: as Barrie says, there is no reason the tenses need to be the same here.

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  • Thank you for your kindness, I did get confused about "put paid to". – benlogos Nov 23 '13 at 11:44
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SUPPLEMENTAL to Barrie England's answer:

You are, I think, confused by the colloquial use of tense to refer to both time relationships and verb constructions.

Tense has a variety of technical meanings among grammarians, but all restrict the term to location in time. These two clauses refer to the same past timeframe—they are both in the same tense.

What distinguishes the two clauses and the two constructions is not tense but aspect—the ‘shape’ of the eventuality in time. The progressive construction expresses imperfective aspect: a state or activity seen ‘from the inside’, or as Barrie says as continuing over time. The simple past construction expresses perfective aspect: an event seen ‘from the outside’, as a whole, as if it were instantaneous.

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No, there is no reason why they should be the same. The past progressive were negotiating describes something which continued over a period of time. It provides the background to the ill-judged laugh which, in an instant, changed the course of events.

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Much of the value of the past progressive (and the other progressive tenses) is in the very fact that we can switch tenses within a sentence. The progressive tenses allow us a to convey a context in which the simple or perfect tenses describe an action.

In this case, the progressive past describes the fact that negotiations were happening and the past simple that an "ill-judged laugh put paid" to them. It would not make sense to describe that second part as a progressive thing (it would have to be a very long laugh, for one thing). It would be possible to use the past simple describe the negotiations, but this would be less expressive; the author wanted to express that the laugh happened during the negotiations, and a sequence of past simple statements would not do so as clearly.

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