They came, four by four, down the vast hall between double rows of columns. The drum beat dully. No voice spoke, no eye watched. Torches carried by black-clad girls burned reddish in the shafts of sunlight, brighter in the dusk between. Outside, on the steps of the Hall of the Throne, the men stood , guards, trumpeters, drummers; within the great doors only women had come, dark-robed and hooded, walking slowly four by four towards the empty throne.

Two came, tall women looming in their black, one of them thin and rigid, the other heavy, swaying with the planting of her feet. Between these two walked a child of about six. She wore a straight white shift. Her head and arms and legs were bare, and she was barefoot. She looked extremely small. At the foot of the steps leading up to the throne, where the others now waited in dark rows, the two tall women halted. They pushed the child forward a little.

From "The Tombs of Atuan" by Ursula K. Le Guin

It seems to me (and I'm not a native English speaker) that a lot of verbs from the above passage must be continuous.

  • The drum was beating dully.
  • ... were burning reddish ...
  • ... men were standing ...
  • ... was walking a child ...
  • She was wearing straight white shift.
  • ... others were waiting ...

Are both Past Simple and Past continuous interchangeable in this case? Would both of them mean the same thing? Is one preferred over the other stylistically?


  • 1
    I think many of these verbs would normally be past continuous. The author has made a deliberate stylistic choice by using past simple here instead. Jul 11, 2016 at 3:15

1 Answer 1


The simple past is inherently perfective only with telic verbs: those like make, arrive, recognize which express a final goal or change of state.

But most of the verbs in this passage—beat, speak, watch, stand, watch, wear, look, be, wait—are inherently atelic—that is, they imply no goal or change of state achieved by their action. And come, although perhaps telic in its base sense, is employed in a syntactic context which denies the goal or change of state: to come along a path (down the great hall) or in the direction of a goal (towards the empty throne) focuses on the process of movement, not its end. The only telic use of come employs a past perfect, and the perfect is inherently stative: that the women had come doesn't narrate their arrival, it declares that they are currently in the state of having arrived.

So none of these verbs requires a progressive construction to express an imperfective ('unfinished') sense: imperfectivity is so to speak 'built in to' the verb itself or the context in which it is used.

It is only fairly recently—over the last century or so—that speakers have felt a growing need to cast verbs of this sort in the progressive to express imperfectivity. That tendency is reflected in fiction cast in a colloquial register, but more formal registers like LeGuin's still resist this tendency. Her use of old-fashioned, literary simple pasts gives her narration a timeless, a detached and dispassionate feel.

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