I'm self-studying now and I've found an exercise.

Matt ... while we were having dinner.

The correct answer is phoned. But I couldn't figure out why was phoning is not a right choice. There is some logic in this answer because Matt is doing a continuous action. Maybe there is something in usage of while I don't know yet?

  • 1
    If you use two continuous constructions in two clauses, the implication is that the two activities went on together for some time. If you use a simple past to report the call, however, the implication is that the call was a small, punctual, interruption to a continuous activity of having dinner. Which is likely to be the case. Sep 23, 2014 at 17:02
  • It's not "while" that's the problem, it's the verb "phone". "Matt was talking on the phone while we were having dinner" is fine. However, phoning doesn't sound right because it usually means "to make a phone call" rather than "to talk on the phone". You don't say "Sarah phoned her boyfriend for two hours"; you say "Sarah was on the phone with her boyfriend for two hours" or "Sarah phoned her boyfriend and talked for two hours". Sep 23, 2014 at 17:12
  • @JohnLawler Thank you for explaining the logic. So, "Matt was phoning while we were having dinner" is not a violation of rules of english? And is it likely to be heard from a native speaker, that construction "past_continuous while past_continuous" Sep 23, 2014 at 17:12
  • 1
    No, it's not a violation; it just says something else. She was drinking coffee while I was drinking beer is perfectly grammatical. Sep 23, 2014 at 18:31

3 Answers 3


Both are grammatically perfectly fine, but they mean different things. Without any context (knowing the situation that the sentence would have occurred in, if there had been one), there is no way to tell which of the meanings is the ‘correct’ one—and whatever book you're using that tells you only phoned is correct is simply wrong, as such self-learning books often are.

Matt phoned while we were having dinner.

This means that at some point during the stretch of time when we were having dinner, we received a telephone call from Matt. Here, phoned does not refer to the entire phone conversation, but to the actual ringing up. The conversation may well have gone on for an hour, by which time the dinner of the person who went to pick up the phone was cold and everyone else had long since left the table.

But the dialling and picking up happened while we were having dinner.

Matt was phoning while we were having dinner.

This means that two things took place concurrently:

  1. We are having dinner.
  2. Matt is on the phone talking to someone.

The most obvious interpretation of the sentence is that it's an explanation for why Matt wasn't there at the dinner table: because he was talking on the phone in another room.

In this case, phoning does refer to the entire phone conversation, not just the dialling and picking up bit.

  • Upvoted. Would it also be correct to say that 'Matt phoned' excludes Matt from the company, whilst "Matt was phoning" includes him in the company, even if he was away from the table - i.e. one was phoning in, the other out?
    – Grimxn
    Sep 23, 2014 at 17:38
  • @Grimxn That would be my immediate understanding; but as always, context is master, and in the right context, the opposite could be the case. Sep 23, 2014 at 17:47

Both 'phoned' and 'was phoning' are technically correct here. However 'phoned' implies a event that occurred during dinner. 'Was phoning' implies that the phone call was going on continuously during dinner.

The second can be the case, for example if Matt went away before dinner to make a phone call, and wasn't finished with it until after dinner. However by far the most normal circumstances is that the phone call from Matt happened during dinner, in which case 'phoned' is correct.

  • Thanks! I'd like to vote up but I couldn't. Sep 23, 2014 at 17:18

In UK English was phoning just doesn’t work here, not in the southeast anyway.

If Matt was calling, it would be phoned.

Matt Phoned during dinner implies that Matt called from somewhere else to the place while someone had dinner.

If Matt was there then Matt was phoning someone or was on the phone during dinner.

The only “correct” use in UK English of was phoning in this context is if someone came in and you told them:

Matt was phoning during dinner, but you were out so you missed his calls.

Saying it that way implies that Matt phoned multiple times.

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