When is it possible to use past perfect instead of past perfect progressive to show that the action is still in progress?

I was just looking for more examples like the one below where either form can be used.

When the action began before the time of speaking in the past, and continued up to that time, or stopped just before it, we can often use either form. SOURCE

It was now six and he was tired because he had worked since dawn=It was now six and he was tired because he had been working since dawn.

I think in my examples they can't be used interchangeably.

I had been eating dinner, when the doorbell rang. (The action is still in progress now, or has just ended)

I had eaten dinner, when the doorbell rang. (A finished action)

I had been cleaning my place when she arrived. (The action is still in progress now, or has just ended)

I had cleaned my place when she arrived. (A finished action)

I had eaten and I had cleaned imply that the actions have finished, but I need to show that they are still in progress.

I think I should remove 'now' and write that the action was still in progress at that moment in the past and it didn't finish or finished just before it or just finished.

  • You seem to have answered your own question. What is it you are unsure about? Sep 5, 2012 at 7:45
  • Do both forms; he was tired because 'he had worked' since dawn and It was now six and he was tired because 'he had been working' since dawn" show that it is possible that he was still working at that moment in the past OR that he had just finished?
    – Monica
    Sep 5, 2012 at 7:59
  • If I write; 'He was tired because he was working' it would imply that he was still working at that moment. Then past pefect progressive can imply the same, can it? According to the explanations that I read on a site.
    – Monica
    Sep 5, 2012 at 8:02

1 Answer 1


The short answer is that you may employ the simple past perfect to express a continuing action only when the expression is atelic or bears in context a reasonably natural atelic interpretation.

A telic expression is one which has a goal or ending point "built in" to its sense—finish, for instance. Employing the test suggested in the article linked above, it makes perfect sense to say He finished in an hour, but not (normally) He finished for an hour.

Expressions which do not have such a goal are atelic. In your first example, work is an atelic expression: using the same test, He worked for an hour is acceptable, but not (normally) He worked in an hour. Atelic expressions are, so to speak, inherently continuous. Consequently, a simple past perfect construction use supports a continuous sense; this is why the two are "interchangeable".

Your other examples, however, are telic. Eating dinner and cleaning a room are not (normally) protracted indefinitely, they come to an end when the dinner is consumed and the room is clean. Consequently, using simple perfect constructions implies completion, and if you want to convey that the action continues you must employ a progressive construction.

Note, however, that "telicity" is a very subtle matter in practice. As the linked article tells you, grammarians are in some disagreement over just how it works; and I have been careful to qualify all my analyses with the (normally) tag.

Note, too, that there is an alternative to the two constructions you illustrate. The past progressive ("I was eating dinner when ... " and "I was cleaning my space when ... ") is more natural to my ear than the past perfect progressive. You want the past perfect progressive only if you employ a qualifier like since dawn, which removes the focus from the present-in-the-past to the past-in-the-past, the stretch of time which preceded the present-in-the-past.

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