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I'm a student learning English and recently helped a friend of mine write an important email in English. The text I gave him contained the following part:

I am sorry for not replying to your email, but I was no longer working for X and did not regularly check my email box at X. When I saw and read your email, I supposed you did not need my advice anymore, as a considerable amount of time had elapsed. I apologize for not replying.

(Here X substitutes the name of the company my friend had left.)

The friend changed "was no longer working" to "no longer worked," saying I had made an obvious error, and I'm pondering as to whether he is right.

On the one hand, I've been taught that the main criterion to choose between the simple tense and the continuous tense is whether the sentence is about a regular action or, on the contrary, about someone being in the very process of doing something. This criterion seems to indicate that my friend is right. He left the company a couple of weeks before the email seeking his advice landed in his email box at that company.

But, on the other hand, I chose the continuous tense in that sentence instinctively, and I know from experience that my quick intuitive choices are usually correct. Perhaps I had seen similar phrases in books or articles. I've read a lot of them, and this really helps me write my own texts. I didn't even think as to which tense to choose - I expressed the idea as my subconscious mind dictated it. Curious, I've just typed the exact phrase "was no longer working for" in Google and got really many search results. Furthermore, I've just recalled reading an article about a message all residents of New Zealand received from their government in relation to the coronavirus, and that message contained the following sentence:

You must only be in physical contact with those you are living with.

Here the continuous tense is chosen, just like in my original text.

My question: Whose variant is better and why?

  • I think you should say "I no longer work for X and do not regularly check that email box." – Weather Vane Aug 8 at 13:19
  • @WeatherVane : I'm unsure whether the use of the present tense is a good choice in the circumstances. The chronology is this: (1) He leaves the company and stops regularly checking the email box at that company. (2) A couple of weeks later the email seeking his advice lands in that email box. (3) Two weeks later he sees the email, reads it, deems the request "expired," and decides to ignore it. (4) Some months later the company deletes that email box. (5) The person who sought advice from my friend finds his new email address and contacts him to asks for advice about a related situation. – Mitsuko Aug 8 at 13:47
  • Now my friend has to somehow apologize for not replying to the first email. I guess he should use a past tense to emphasize that he had already quit X back then, many months ago. – Mitsuko Aug 8 at 13:47
  • The person who sought advice knows that my friend doesn't work for X anymore, but well may be unaware that he had already quit X back then! – Mitsuko Aug 8 at 13:50
  • I don't think you need to be too exhaustive in covering all the angles, when an email was not received. The simpler the apology and explanation, the better, and move quickly to addressing the email itself. "I did not receive your previous email because I no longer work for X". – Weather Vane Aug 8 at 13:59
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There is a mismatch of tenses, which is bad style. Since working and check are parallel verbs in the sentence, and there is no semantic reason to put them in different tenses, they should be in the same tense. So your friend was correct in that something was wrong with the sentence, but it's not clear that he identified the correct "obvious error".

You should either say

I was no longer working for X and was not regularly checking my email box at X,

or

I no longer worked for X and did not regularly check my email box at X.

I slightly prefer the continuous tense, but both options are grammatical, and both sound fine to me.

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  • Thanks a lot. The reasoning of my friend was that the continuous tense does not fit, because the sentence is about a regular action (work). Ironically enough, his wrong reasoning led him to a correct variant :) – Mitsuko Aug 8 at 13:57
  • @Mitsuko: It's a lot easier to sense that there is something wrong with a sentence than to identify exactly what is wrong, even in your first language. – Peter Shor Aug 8 at 14:15
  • I agree with the same tenses being more natural, but I would personally use the present tense for this—assuming the lack of checking happened in the recent past rather than a long time ago: I am no longer working at X, and no longer regularly check my mail. – Jason Bassford Aug 8 at 14:47
  • @JasonBassford : The lack of checking happened long ago, actually about half a year ago. It's important for my friend to write that he already did not work for X at that time. – Mitsuko Aug 8 at 15:14
  • @Mitsuko In this context, I wouldn't say that half a year is "long ago." Actually, even if it is, if you haven't spoken to your friend since you stopped working at X, and you still are not checking your mail regularly, then the present tense remains fine. I would personally say it's preferable in that case. – Jason Bassford Aug 8 at 17:06

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