For example:

I had been finishing my exam when my teacher told us to stop writing.

So in this sentence I'd like to say that I was about to finish my exam, but had been interrupted. If I'd like to highlight me finishing the exam in the past(so it was like 95% done and needed a bit more time) and also got interrupted while I was finishing, can I use the sentence mentioned above?

Can past continuous be past perfect continuous in this sentence, or it's obvious which event happened earlier and it doesn't require such grammar? That's what I'd love to know.

  • No, it's not. Why?
    – Daniel
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:03
  • No, I meant told me "something" Sorry if it wasn't clear
    – Daniel
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:11
  • @tchrist - not the question..., but at least as intriguing!
    – Dan
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:12
  • 1
    Alrighty, question has been edited.
    – Daniel
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:14
  • "Just prior to the phone call I had been finishing the plaster on the wall, but had stopped because I ran out of lime." But "I hadn't quite finished the exam when the teacher told us to stop writing." Your version of the sentence doesn't clearly imply whether you got the exam finished or not.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 17, 2017 at 23:20

1 Answer 1


Both past continuous and past perfect continuous tenses can be used to talk about actions or situations that were in progress at a certain point of time in the past. While the past continuous merely shows continuity, the past perfect continuous tense also puts an emphasis on the idea of duration. It is mainly used to indicate the duration of a past activity or state. Since the past tense of the verb finish describes only the end of the event, and not the duration, it doesn't convey the intended meaning. And yes, the timetable of events in this case are obvious and do not require this usage. It is more correct to say; " I had almost finished the test when my teacher told us to stop writing." This lets the reader know that you were engaged in the action of taking the test, but were interrupted, as you said was your meaning.

  • The verb 'finish' is often used non-punctively, as a synonym of 'put the finishing touches to' / 'do the last bit of'. 'I'm just finishing my homework.' But I agree that it's not the best choice in OP's example. Jan 18, 2017 at 0:35

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