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I'm currently reading "Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue" by Hugh Howey.

Here's a short passage with my problem zone and the subsequent question:

...Well, I'm going to go do more Officser sstuff," Walter said haughtily. "The sstorage lockerss in the bilge are almosst done," he added with pride. While she waited for Walter to pad away, Molly noticed how close her face was to Cole's. The nav screens were hard to see clearly from an angle. ...

  1. Why is the simple past used and not the past continuous as in

While she was waiting for Walter to pad away, Molly noticed how close...

  1. I thought "while" contains the element of duration and hence requires a progressive form?

2.1 BTW, is the above question even grammatically correct? Or should it have been

  • "I thought while contained the element of duration and hence required a progressive form?"

I read something about verb tense consistency within a sentence and to not switch from one tense to another unless the timing of an action demanded that you did. Is this the case here?

  • Inda, I think 'While' there means something like 'Although', so there is not any tense or duration involved, at least in the sense you are asking. – Elberich Schneider Jan 5 '14 at 20:11
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    @Elberich: Nah. That while definitely means as, during the time when. India - you should probably have asked this on English Language Learners. I think the answer is you're mistaken in assuming contexts like this require a progressive form. They don't, and native speakers often (if not usually) opt for simpler verb forms wherever possible. – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '14 at 20:22
  • @Fumble, but Molly noticed how close her face was to Cole's, this is why I infered that that 'While' is similar to 'Although'. – Elberich Schneider Jan 5 '14 at 20:31
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    @Elberich: While I can see what you're getting at, I assure you this sentence uses the word in a completely different way to OP's citation. – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '14 at 20:36
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As an English teacher, I believe it's more correct to say 'While she was waiting' if we're talking about school grammar.

According to Oxford Practical English Usage, the simple past tense can refer to an extended/longer action in 'simultaneous long actions'. i.e. one long + one long action e.g. John cooked supper while I watched TV. (or ...was cooking... was watching...)

But for 'background' action/situations, i.e. one short + one long action, the past continuous is used for the longer 'background' event in contrast. e.g. While they were playing cards, somebody broke into the house. e.g. As I was walking down the street I saw Joe driving a Porsche.

The example you quoted obviously belongs to the latter case. Hence, "While she was waiting [LONG] for Walter to pad away, Molly noticed [SHORT] how close her face was to Cole's..."

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Use of the simple past does not preclude an extended action / state, or there wouldn't be a simple past tense of say 'wait'.

He waited while I combed my hair.

He stayed there for several months.

The past continuous is used when there is a more punctive occurrence during that process:

He saw a mouse as he was waiting while I was combing my hair.

While he was staying there for several months, he was discovered by an MI7 agent.

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    I particularly like your first example. Context is everything, of course, but a quick check on Google Books confirms at least three instances of waited while she combed her hair. As I would have expected, there are none at all for waited while she was combing her hair. – FumbleFingers Jan 5 '14 at 20:41
  • What does "punctive" mean? – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 '14 at 18:56
  • From a "punctive verb" Google search (first two hits): << Punctive verbs describe events which are (nearly) instantaneous, e.g. pounce // Punctive verbs, such as kick, describe bounded events which occur within short periods of time. >> I've been a little loose in grading and extending to the event ('a more punctive occurrence') but little is really instantaneous. Grammarians use 'punctive' to describe the event as well as the verb used to describe it. The word 'punctual' is also used for such verbs, but has a far more common meaning, so I avoid it. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 24 '14 at 19:23
  • @EdwinAshworth: I would not mind you opinion on the answer I am just posting. – user58319 Aug 5 '19 at 12:18
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The progressive form is just one way to express duration. Numerous verbs convey an ongoing activity and appear in all tenses, both simple and proressive.

I drive to work.

I am driving to work.

I drove to work.

I was driving to work.

I have driven to work.

I have been driving to work.

I had driven to work.

I had been driving to work.

In all of these sentences, the drive is and was not instantaneous. Sometimes the progressive emphasizes the ongoing aspect, but it is rarely essential for meaning (or for gramatical correctness).

I often ate while I was driving to work

and

I often ate while I drove to work

effectively mean the same thing.

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  • I thought "while" contains the element of duration and hence requires a progressive form?

2.1 BTW, Is the above question even grammatically correct?

Or should it have been:

  • I thought "while" contained the element of duration and hence required a progressive form?

I read something about verb tense consistency within a sentence and to not switch from one tense to another unless the timing of an action demanded that you did. Is this the case here?

*

I can answer your 2.1 question. :)

Both versions are fine, and are grammatical.

(Note that in my discussion, I'll be using the term "preterite". "Preterite" means the same thing as "a past-tense form of a verb".)

The preterites that you are asking about in your 2nd version are backshifted preterites. This has nothing to do with the past time usage of the preterite.

First, a little info about preterites. Preterites have three main uses: "past time" usage, modal usage, backshift usage. The usages are mutually exclusive -- that is, within a sentence a single preterite can only be used for one specific usage.

Backshifting is usually optional (though sometimes obligatory), and usually happens in constructions were one clause is embedded within a larger one that contains a preterite verb. Backshifted preterites are commonly used in indirect reported speech. For example, the original utterance could be, when I say to Tom early in the day:

  • "Tom, you are ugly!"

Then later, I could use indirect reported speech in my conversation with a friend, and both of the following are acceptable:

  • I told Tom that he is ugly.

  • I told Tom that he was ugly.

The last version uses the backshifted preterite "was"; and backshifting is allowable because the matrix clause's verb "told" is itself a preterite.

In your example question:

  • A.) I thought "while" contains the element of duration and hence requires a progressive form?

  • B.) I thought "while" contained the element of duration and hence required a progressive form?

Your #B version uses backshifted preterites, which is allowable because the matrix clause verb "thought" is itself a preterite. (It so happens that "thought" is a "past time" usage of a preterite.)

.

In general, the meaning of the two versions of a sentence (non-backshifted vs backshifted) will usually be the same, but sometimes they aren't -- and even if they are different, often the difference isn't really significant. Sometimes the backshifted version might be ambiguous as to meaning, if that version was looked at in isolation; context will often make it clear as to the intended meaning. Sometimes there might be ambiguity in meaning due to the possibility that a preterite could be either the backshifted preterite or the "past time" preterite.

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The Past Continuous, or Past Progressive is used for the longer/est of two or more simultaneous actions or events in the past.

The phone rang while he was having a shower. / While he was having a shower, the phone rang.

The two actions, 'a phone ringing' and 'a man having a shower', are different lengths of time: the man having a shower being the longer one, and the phone ringing, the shorter one.

If these actions or events are the same length, the Past Continuous is no longer required: (the slightly modified example sentence in Edwin Ashworth's answer)

He waited while she combed her hair.

is a simplification of

He was waiting while she was combing her hair.

two continuous tenses having been replaced by two simple ones, for concision's sake.

Unsurprisingly – and it CAN be explained, FumbleFingers

*He waited while she was combing her hair.

does not occur because it would imply a 'waiting' shorter than the 'combing', which does not make sense in the sentence.

The simplification can only take place when the actions/events described by both verbs are the same length. So, whenever a time clause contains 'while' followed by a verb in the Past Simple, then you know the main clause also contains a verb in the Past Simple, and you know both actions or events are long, and the same length.

Now, Inda, your sentence and your question:

While she waited for Walter to pad away, she noticed how close her face was to Cole's.

If the author had written 'was waiting' instead of 'waited', then the verb would have taken the 'punctive' meaning Edwin Ashworth tells you about; the fact that he chose 'waited' means 'the noticing' is not instantaneous, takes some time to form, the same amount of time 'the waiting' takes; 'the noticing' is dawning upon her, gradually.

  • It gets even more complicated. 'He was waiting while she was combing her hair.' IMO doesn't sound idiomatic without licensing context: "Why didn't George go down and make sure the car was ready for Anne?" ... and 'He was waiting while she combed her hair (= until she had finished combing ...) .' sounds quite acceptable here in informal dialogue. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 5 '19 at 13:30

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