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I was having a debate with my classmate the other day about this one grammar exercise. We had to use add a phrasal verb in the blank space in the following sentence (and put it in the right tense):

That left a lot of machine workers without a job in one small town. They ____________ the newspapers every day, but there weren't many job vacancies.

Phrasal verb: look through

My choice was "they were looking through the newspaper every day", my classmate's answer was "they looked through the newspaper every day". Our teacher agreed with him. I still don't feel like it's correct :(

Would anyone tell me which way is right, and why?

  • I can see why you might think a continuous tense appropriate here, but the verb would idiomatically be the past simple, conveying an iterative rather than semelfactive meaning here. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 3 '18 at 0:19
  • Hmm. I'd say searched [through] or scoured, myself ... – Will Crawford Mar 3 '18 at 0:58
  • @EdwinAshworth "semelfactive"? I can just about guess what that means. Show some pity for the non-linguists :P (A single action/unrepeated episode.) – Mari-Lou A Mar 4 '18 at 13:26
  • Hopefully, they will get to grips with the terminology and concepts if they wish to understand what's going on. The clue is in the 'why?' And 'semelfactive' verb usages have been covered here before. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 4 '18 at 13:58
  • @EdwinAshworth but the website is used by non-experts also. There's nothing wrong with using simple plain English, when you know the OP is not an expert. If, however, the user is a qualified language teacher, a linguist, or even an author of grammar books then, by all means, use arcane language. – Mari-Lou A Mar 4 '18 at 14:09
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The past continuous is used:

  • to describe conditions or an environment in the past:

The sun was shining and a few whitecaps were breaking on the rocks a distance toward the open sea.

  • to establish a temporal frame for another action/state that takes place within this frame or interrupts it. This second action/state is usually expressed in past simple:

I was just eating lunch when the telephone rang.

  • To narrate what one was doing at a particular time:

I was weeding the garden all morning.

  • to highlight an activity of some duration in the past rather than simply a completed action in the past:

Back then he was painting a lot of landscapes.     Accent on activity
Back then he painted a lot of landscapes.             Past action

Perhaps you were thinking of this use of the past continuous, since the verb required in the blank doesn't set the scene or provide a temporal frame for another action. If the verbs were to highlight the repeated activity, however, the author of the passage would most likely have cast both verbs in the second sentence in the past continuous and kept they, the workers, as the subject:

They were looking through the newspapers every day but not finding many job openings.

This would make narrative sense if the passage goes on to discuss the workers. But since the second verb is past simple and the focus not on the workers failure to find job openings but on the lack of them in the newspapers, one suspects that the entire passage is cast in the past simple to narrate past actions:

That left a lot of machine workers without a job in one small town. They looked through the newspapers every day, but there weren't many job vacancies.

  • This must have an answer elsewhere on ELU, but there are so many hits for 'past continuous' that I've stopped looking. If one is found, this answer probably betters any there. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 4 '18 at 16:05
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I believe

"They were looking through the newspapers every day but [they] didn't find many job vacancies."

to be absolutely fine. The progressive expresses an action that is prolonged for an indeterminate time in the past, while the simple past–in the second verb, tells the reader the consequences/results of that particular action.

In the OP's example, however, the context is set firmly in the past, the narrator is documenting a series of events

  1. a lot of machine workers had lost their jobs
  2. factory workers searched for jobs in local newspapers
  3. the number of available positions were limited

That left a lot of machine workers without a job in one small town. They looked through the newspapers every day, but there weren't many job vacancies.

The Past Simple is used to narrate past events in chronological order

  • She left her family home on a rainy day and moved to the big city. She soon found a good job. Years later as she sat and looked at the cosy living room around her, she felt a swell of pride surge through her; at long last the house was hers.
  • So you're saying that the past simple is preferable here? This essentially duplicates part of KarlG's answer. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 4 '18 at 16:02
  • @EdwinAshworth yes, in part. But I used the term chronological! I didn't replicate his explanations for using the Past Continuous, which I found rather good. I didn't like his They were looking through the newspapers every day but not finding many job openings. It's a bit of a mouthful, I prefer my version. – Mari-Lou A Mar 4 '18 at 16:08
  • @Mari-LouA: That works. My main concern was keeping the workers as subject. – KarlG Mar 4 '18 at 16:30

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