Adverbial clause of time and verb tense
Thread poster: Dungly
Dungly
Local time: 04:12
English to Dutch
Sep 13, 2011

Hello, I have a question about the adverbial clause of time starting with 'when' and the verb tense in that clause.

Example sentences:
When we went there, we saw John.
When we were going there, we saw John

When I woke up, the alarm went off.
When I was waking up, the alarm went off.

Can you use the subordinating conjunction ‘when’ with past simple and past continuous? Are both sentences possible and correct? Is the only difference the focus on the on-going or not-on-going activity (to go there, to wake up)? Or do you have to use a past tense with this type of clause because it refers to a time in the past?

'When' means 'at that time [in the past, at least in my example sentences] and are you, therefore, obliged to use past simple? To me, however, the second sentences seem fine as well. 'While we were on our way/walking to [the cinema], we saw John' and 'while I was in the process of waking up (I hadn't quite woken up yet), the alarm went off'.

Could anyone explain to me using rules of grammar what is correct and what isn't?


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Martina Pokupec  Identity Verified
Croatia
Local time: 04:12
English to Croatian
+ ...
your explanation Sep 13, 2011



'When' means 'at that time [in the past, at least in my example sentences] and are you, therefore, obliged to use past simple? To me, however, the second sentences seem fine as well. 'While we were on our way/walking to [the cinema], we saw John' and 'while I was in the process of waking up (I hadn't quite woken up yet), the alarm went off'.

Could anyone explain to me using rules of grammar what is correct and what isn't?


Seems fine to me. There are instances of using "when" with the Past Progressive; however if you would like to make a more precise point of difference I would use "while" with the Past Progressive and "when" with the Past Simple.

When we went there, we saw John. - first we got there and then we saw John. - Actions happening one after another
WHILE we were going there, we saw John - We saw John on our way there. - One action interrupts another action in progress.

I hope this helps

Personally and professionally, I never use "when" with the Past Progressive, and I also discourage my students of doing it at least until they understand the difference between the Simple and Progressive; however, I have seen some English books using "when" with the PP.

[Edited at 2011-09-13 09:08 GMT]


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Dungly
Local time: 04:12
English to Dutch
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you, Martina. Sep 13, 2011

Thanks for your clear explanation.

I can see the difference in meaning now and understand that, although it may be possible to use past continuous, custom is to use past simple with an adverbial clause of time starting with 'when'.

I appreciate your effort to reply to me.

Monique


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:12
Hebrew to English
What Swan's Practical English Usage has to say.... Sep 13, 2011

Swan's "Practical English Usage" draws this distinction:

1. Simultaneous LONG actions.

Use "while/as"

We usually use "while" to say that two longer actions or situations go/went on at the same time. We can use progressive or simple tenses.

e.g. While you were reading the paper, I was working.

2. Simultaneous SHORT actions.

Use "when/just as"

We usually use "when/just as" to say that two short actions or events happen/ed at the same time.

e.g. When I woke up, the alarm went off.


_______________________________________________________________________

In your one example you create a type of "mixed condition" (a simultaneous long action with a short action).

"When I was waking up, the alarm went off".

This doesn't sound very natural if you ask me. "When I woke up, the alarm went off" sounds much better. (Or: The alarm was going off when I woke up)

Swan also mentions the use of "as/while" to create background, which I think is what your sentence is trying to do.

So, your sentence would read better as:

As I was waking up (background), the alarm went off.
As we were going there (background), we saw John.

Also, don't fall into the trap of thinking of "when" equating with the past:

When I learn verbs, I write lists to help me remember. (Present)
When I go shopping, I'll get you some chocolate. (Present with future meaning).


For reference:

Swan, M
Practical English Usage
3rd edition
Pages 67-68.
OUP.


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Dungly
Local time: 04:12
English to Dutch
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you, Ty. Sep 13, 2011

Thanks for the reference.

I still find it a bit confusing. You will have to decide when an action is considered a LONG action and when it is a SHORT action.

I see the point you're making though. Like Martina, you agree that past simple is mainly used with 'when' (if it concerns a moment in the past, of course) and 'while' takes the past continuous.

Thank you as well for your contribution.

Monique


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 03:12
French to English
+ ...
It doesn't matter whether the action IS long or short... Sep 13, 2011

Dungly wrote:
I still find it a bit confusing. You will have to decide when an action is considered a LONG action and when it is a SHORT action.


This is a common misconception. Linguistic aspect isn't about whether an action actually IS long or short in nature; it's about your PERSPECTIVE on that and other actions involved in the particular sentence in question.

So in one case, you are essentially describing two subsequent actions:

- When the clock struck three, the children left school.

In the other case, you are essentially setting one event up as a 'background' to another event and describing two simultaneous rather than sequential events:

- As the clock was striking three, the children left/were leaving the school.

But in the second case, the clock doesn't actually take more time to strike three o'clock. But the change in aspect affects the *relationship* between the description of the clock striking and the description of other actions in the sentence: in the second case, the actions are essentially simultaneous rather than sequential.


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Dungly
Local time: 04:12
English to Dutch
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you, Neil Sep 15, 2011

Thank you for the extra information. That clarifies a lot to me. It is about perception and a certain feeling you want to pass on to other people, more than absolute length of time. I also now see the difference in meaning between the two.

Thanks again,
Monique


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Adverbial clause of time and verb tense

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