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I noticed that her eyes had been dancing as she looked out at the scenery.

It appeared in a state-sponsored high school leaving examination in Slovakia last week and it seems to have been adapted from a short story by a native speaker, so it really ought to be correct, but I don't see how or why.

Past continuous seems the obvious choice, this just seems wrong as it's all happening at the same time.

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    There is not a one-to-one relation between native-speaker-utterance and 'correct'. // Exact matching of tenses is not always necessary in English, but "I noticed that her eyes had been dancing as she looked out at the scenery." implies that the noticing took place at a later time than the looking out at the scenery. This is possible, with video technology.... Mar 22, 2016 at 23:12
  • However, "I noticed that her eyes were dancing as she looked out at the scenery." (no problem with continuous and past simple mixing here) or "I had noticed that her eyes were dancing as she looked out at the scenery." (again, no problem with this apparently illogical mixture of tenses) seem more likely usages. Mar 22, 2016 at 23:12
  • I'm afraid the only technology on hand was a rear view mirror.
    – Tomas
    Mar 23, 2016 at 4:13
  • "Notice", in particular, with a perfect tense, seems like an awkward combination — but this is OK: "I saw that she had been digging in the garden; she still had dirt under her fingernails.", because the digging occurred at a time further in the past than the time of the sentence (the time of the seeing). Mar 23, 2016 at 6:07

2 Answers 2

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It can be correct but, as with many things in English, it depends upon the context. If the sentence you gave was followed by something like "but now she seemed sad" or a similar alteration in her mood then it would make more sense.

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  • Okay, that makes sense, but wouldn't you need that second part for the sentence to work?
    – Tomas
    Mar 23, 2016 at 3:53
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An excellent question, and I think the answer has to do with the fact that this is past report along the lines of indirect speech. (Replace noticed with "I thought to myself that ....") Here are two versions in the present tense of the reported noticing, present progressive/simple present:

I notice that her eyes are dancing as she looks out at the scenery.

The noticing, eye-dancing and scenery-looking are all concomitant, and the tenses cover the same time. When this is reported later, the tenses can be backshifted together, as you suggested, to past progressive/simple past.

I noticed that her eyes were dancing as she looked out at the scenery.

But the narrator may notice something at the time that has already passed as he notices. If you'll allow me some non-artistic license:

I notice that her eyes were dancing as she looked out at the scenery and then went dull and lifeless when she turned to look at me.

Now it's possible to backshift to past perfect progressive/simple past:

I noticed that her eyes had been dancing as she looked out at the scenery.

The problem here (at least for me) is that the past perfect tense generally speaks to time before a fixed past event:

I had prayed for rain before the storm.

Prayer first, followed by a storm. In the given sentence, it's hard to see where to attach the past event. Gazing at the scenery? The as clause implies that the eye-dancing and scenery-looking took place together. The noticing? That's a momentary realization (especially when completed in the past tense), and that seems to clash with the progressive verb form, which describes an ongoing situation.

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  • So given proper context it would be correct to use past perfect with the -as clause in past simple? For the record, the context is that it's a car ride.The previous sentences are (slightly abridged): "As we travelled to my house, I glanced in my rear view mirror. Emily sat on the back seat dressed in her pink tracksuit. I noticed that her eyes had been dancing as she looked out at the scenery." Given the context, I think it should either be is past simple/continuous or the whole sentence should be backshifted, i.e. "I had noticed." Further thoughts?
    – Tomas
    Mar 23, 2016 at 4:10
  • Sure. Consider I noticed that before she turned to look at me with dull and lifeless eyes, her eyes had been dancing as she looked out at the scenery. That gets rid of the dissonance for me. But backshifting isn't wrong. What clangs here is that the driver notices with a glance (a moment) something that's placed in the progressive (an interval). But that's a semantic issue, not a grammatical one.
    – deadrat
    Mar 23, 2016 at 4:44

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