This is an example of simple past usage I stumbled upon on YouTube:

Sarah and David talked for two hours.

It is not clear to me why present perfect or past continuous are not used here instead of the past tense, or can all of these tenses be used correctly? For two hours specifies a duration of time and for is also a signal word used in present perfect tense and past continuous tense.

I thought the past tense is used for finished actions, but in this example, the action was in progress. So why is this sentence correct?

  • Talking can be either thought of as a single act or a protracted activity.
    – Greg Lee
    May 15, 2018 at 21:20
  • Sorry, but I don't understand, what does this tell me? May 15, 2018 at 21:31
  • All the forms you mentioned are okay: "have talked, were talking, talked".
    – Greg Lee
    May 15, 2018 at 21:46
  • The simple past is used to talk about an action or event that is finished; that is excluded from the present. It does not matter if the action occurred over a specific/given time period or duration of time: that whole time period or duration took place in the past; it did not continue to the present. It is similar to They talked from 4pm to 6pm and you say this at 8pm. The duration from 4 to 6pm is over/finished. May 15, 2018 at 21:48
  • So, then the sentences "Sarah and David talked for two hours" and "Sarah and David were talking for two hours" have the same meaning in this case? May 15, 2018 at 21:52

3 Answers 3


We use for + duration in different tenses :

  • Sarah and David talk for two hours daily. (Regular habit).

  • Sarah and David have talked for two hours. (They have just completed their talking.)

  • Sarah and David talked for two hours. (Their talking ended in the past.)

  • Sarah and David were talking for two hours. (They were talking for two hours and it ended in the past.)

  • Sarah and David had been talking for two hours before I came (or, when I came). (to say how long they had been talking up to a past moment.)

  • Sarah and David will not talk for the next ten days. (They won't talk for a period in future.)

*** But to measure "DURATION UP TO THE PRESENT", we use a present perfect tense :

  • Sarah and David have been talking for two hours. (It means their talking started in the past and is still going on.)

The simple past tense is used to express a completed action in the past usually with a reference to a definite time.

Sarah and David talked for two hours yesterday after school.

Where as the present perfect indicates basically an action that has just been finished or is likely to continue even after the time of speaking.

Sarah and David have talked for two hours, now.

The past continuous however, is used to say that one action in the past was in progress when another action took place.

When I entered the class Sarah and David were talking.


The simple past implies the action took place in the past and is now finished.

If the action (conversation) is still in progress, then I think "Sarah and David had been talking for two hours" would be better.

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