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  1. If the second action of the two entails the ending of the first, then the past perfect simple emphasises completion, while the past perfect continuous emphasises duration.

I had waited for three hours when you finally arrived.
Emphasises the completion of the action "Waiting".

I had been waiting for three hours when you finally arrived.
Emphasises the duration of the action "Waiting".

And in both sentences the meaning is the same: I waited for three hours, then you arrived.

  1. If the second action however, doesn't entail the ending of the first, then the past perfect simple means the ending and completion of the first action, while the past perfect continuous means that the first action could've either went on, or stopped at that moment.

I had worked for three hours when the manager came.
He came and I had already finished working those 3 hours.

I had been working for three hours when the manager came.
Three hours exactly had passed the moment he came. Maybe he came to check how the work was going, and didn't interrupt and left, so I resumed working. And maybe he asked me to come to him, so that I stopped working. I don't know which of these two speculations or if something else happened, so both meanings are possible.

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    In the had waited example, I would prefer before you arrived
    – Henry
    Oct 20, 2022 at 10:15
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    What @Henry said. In general, I had done X before Y happened and I was doing X when Y happened are far more natural than I had done X when Y happened or I was doing X before Y happened. Oct 20, 2022 at 10:20
  • Thanks for the note, both. I intended that "when" meant: "When suddenly" you arrived, or "when at a certain moment" you arrived, not in the sense of that "when" denotes that vague time period that means "around that time". Oct 20, 2022 at 10:37

2 Answers 2

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Your thoughts are almost accurate.

  1. If the second action of the two entails the ending of the first, then the past perfect simple emphasises completion, while the past perfect continuous emphasises duration.

I had waited for three hours when you finally arrived.
Emphasises the completion of the action "Waiting".

It indicates that the action was complete at the time referred to. This does not mean that the job itself was completed - it merely indicates a hiatus in the job when the manager arrived.

I had been waiting for three hours when you finally arrived.

Emphasises the duration of the action "Waiting".

It indicates that the action has started but was incomplete at the time referred to.

And in both sentences the meaning is the same: I waited for three hours, then you arrived.

You made a distinction, therefore the claim that they are the same cannot be true.

The other problem is that the verb you have chosen (to wait) is durative: this will obscure the point of your example.

  1. If the second action however, doesn't entail the ending of the first, then the past perfect simple means the ending and completion of the first action, while the past perfect continuous means that the first action could've either went on continued, or stopped at that moment.

I had worked for three hours when the manager came.
He came and I had already finished working those 3 hours.

This contradicts your earlier claim.

I had been working for three hours when the manager came.
Three hours exactly [There is no “exactly” in the original example.] had passed the moment he came. Maybe he came to check how the work was going, and didn't interrupt and left, so I resumed working. And maybe he asked me to come to him, so that I stopped working. I don't know which of these two speculations or if something else happened, so both meanings are possible.

You have missed the point of the past perfect. Its use is to provide context and background to the “main event”, i.e. the “theme” of the sentence.

In “I had been working for three hours when the manager came”, what you are telling us is that the manager arrived - the theme is the manager came. “I had been working for three hours” is background/context to the manager’s arrival.

“I had been working for three hours” tells us that the process of working had started but was incomplete – you were still working when the manager arrived. The cause of this meaning is not the duration but the incompleteness - regardless of what you did when the manager arrived - the intention was to continue as the job was incomplete.

Finally, what happens after the manager leaves is not the concern of the verb form that you have used so it indicates nothing.

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  • I actually meant that the two examples of me and the manager were two separate situations. Isn't the contradiction void then? The "contradiction" not the difference in meaning. Oct 20, 2022 at 10:44
  • Oh! In the " I had waited" example, the "Waiting" was complete, as it is in the past perfect simple, and in the "I had been waiting" example, the action of waiting was incomplete NOT the action of waiting 3 hours. I was still waiting and didn't finish waiting, but 3 hours had already passed. Oct 20, 2022 at 10:51
  • What if I make the first 2 examples: A. "I had waited 'for you' for 3 hours when you finally arrived", and B. "I had been waiting 'for you' for 3 hours when you finally arrived". Won't then the completion occur in both cases? *I am describing the same one situation here. Oct 20, 2022 at 10:53
  • And I am truely thankful for your answer. It has clarified several concepts for me. Oct 20, 2022 at 11:01
  • But if I shouldn't have used "wait", what should I have used then? I thought that "duration" was necessary, or else I wouldn't have been able to use a continuous tense. Oct 20, 2022 at 11:07
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@Greybeard I think I may be stretching things, but (in the descriptivist world I inhabit), nobody tries to correct my grammar or accidence if I speak like that, not even the online grammar checker. I agree about the durative aspect. But what if I replaced 'waited' with 'stood' or even the phrase 'been standing? As I speak, I am still standing, so that it has not ended. I suppose my thought is that there is a grey area in cases where past blends into present.

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