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  1. #1
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Default expressing time relations

    Hiya,


    In an exercise in one of your practical grammar books to practice the past simple/past continuous, resp. it says according to the key:

    What were you doing when the robbery took place?

    Although I do admit that this version is the most probable one, I donīt think one can theoretically rule out two alternative options. E.g. while the robbery was taking place, one of the supposed witnesses could have started to run away or to attack one of the robbers. So the question could just as well be:

    1) What did you do when the robbery was taking place?

    Or if the police is interested in knowing what the witness was doing all the time during the robbery, why not asking:

    2 a) What were you doing when the robbery was taking place?

    2 b) What were you doing as the robbery took place?

    Are 2 a) and 2 b) identical in meaning?


    Best thanks and greetings


    Hucky

  2. #2
    The Dude is offline Member
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    Ooh, this is rather a contortion, isn't it?

    First let's be realistic. The given answer is absolutely the way the question would be phrased in real life. It is both clear and concise. We must remember that the main purpose of the spoken language is to make ourselves clear, and conciseness is the best means to that end.

    Now look at the event. It was a robbery. That means, almost inevitably, that it was a pretty quick happening, unlike a burglary. Therefore to use the continuous when describing it (no.1) would be inappropriate.

    If the police wanted further detail after the initial response of 'I was waiting at the bus stop', they could then elaborate by using further questions, none of which would be your alternatives because there would be too much repetition.

    So the given answer is the only one. Now let's suppose it wasn't a robbery, but a burglary or streetfight. In other words, something that lasted a sufficient time for you to do something whilst it was happening. Your alternative answers would now be more relevant, but only 2 b) is correct as it stands. In 1) and 2 a) you'd need to replace the word 'when' with 'while' because 'when' is used for a short event (eg: robbery).

    SO:
    'What were you doing while (or as) the burglary was taking place?'
    'I was watching TV the whole time.'

    Note: 'was taking place' can be replaced with 'took place' as it's all over now.

    But no.1 still sounds weird: 'What did you do when you saw the streetfight taking place?' would be more natural and gain you the information you're after.

    Now my head's spinning. Perhaps I should just have answered your question with 'No'.
    Last edited by The Dude; 21-Feb-2011 at 11:25.

  3. #3
    Vidor is offline Member
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    Default not a teacher

    What were you doing when the robbery took place?
    This basically is asking what you were doing when the robbery started.

    1) What did you do when the robbery was taking place?
    This is acting how you reacted to the robbery, and what actions you took during the robbery.

    2 b) What were you doing as the robbery took place?
    This is basically synonymous with the second quote.

  4. #4
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    Dear Dude,

    Thanks a lot that you went out of your way to make me see your point. Iīm so sorry that it made your head spin. All the more I do appreciate the trouble you took. Of course, I go along with what you say in your initial sentences. But what can you do if your students ask you about the theoretical possibility of the other two versions? Just for you to know what the background of my query is. Thank you also for all your other very good replies so far! I hope I will never make your head or anything else spin again and that you have recovered in the meantime.

    All the best

    Hucky

  5. #5
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    Dear Dude,

    Having read your lines once more, there has just come something into my mind (nothing head spinning): If you want to express two simultaneous actions, is it by means of the following patterns?

    1) Jane was doing the washing-up while / when Jack was cleaning his car.

    I.e.: Main clause: present cont. plus while / when plus present cont.

    2) Jane was doing the washing-up as Jack cleaned his
    car.

    I.e.: Main clause: pres. cont. plus as plus pres. simple

    In other words, do 1) and 2) have the same meaning (in case both are correct)?

    Cheerio

    Hucky

  6. #6
    Hucky is offline Member
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    Dear Vidor,

    Let me also thank you for your reply. Iīd like to assure you of how important it is for a non-native speaker to hear what a native speaker based on his immediate relation to his native language feels about certain linguistic constructions.

    From this side of the Pond

    Hucky

  7. #7
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    Khosro is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    yesterday my student had a problem with past continuous/past simple. I just tried to explain it to her. But I guess I talked too much and she did not get it. She did all exercises very well and only had a problem with that particular sentence.

    Hucky! I think using a time diagram could help. I did not try it but I am going to try it next session. If there are any alternatives, it would be possible to demonstrate them on a time diagram.

  8. #8
    The Dude is offline Member
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    OK, I can see straight again! I feel it is important for the student of a language not to be too technical about it. Sometimes the more alternatives you propose the more confusing everything becomes. Life can be simple!

    So much depends on the context. If you are given a simple sentence to construct, with no idea of the situation, go for the simplest solution. More information behind the question would enable you to choose a different answer. So if a student in my class proposed a less usual construction, I would ask him to think of the situation that might produce it. That gives me the chance to see how he's thinking and work with him to an understanding.

    Of course it often happens that the questioning student is just trying to waste your time. If I sense that, I invite him to discuss it with me afterwards. Afterwards he seems to have lost interest...

    Looking at your question, I would say first of all that 'while' is the word to use here, because we are talking about two continuing actions - both of them are doing things. You are watching TV whilst someone burgles your house. You can use 'when' if one of the actions is not happening, but happens. For example: 'I was cycling along the street when a car pulled out in front of me'. Or 'What were you doing when the robbery took place?'.

    Also, 'while' here is too strong to be replaced by 'as' which is a weaker conjunction. They are not simply interchangeable. I think you will realise this if you read the sentences aloud.

    In this situation, although two actions are continuing at the same time, we would not normally describe both of them in the continuous. One or other would stay in the simple. We understand the situation, without needing it spelt out to us in awkward speech. So I would say:
    'Jane was doing the washing up while Jack cleaned his car'. Put it the other way round: 'Jane did the washing up while Jack was cleaning his car' and there is a slight difference in meaning: Jane started and finished her job while Jack was still doing his. Typical woman. Once again, the context is important.

    So the short answer to your question is that they're not both correct. I hope the longer answer makes clear why.

  9. #9
    The Dude is offline Member
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    Khosro - I never used time diagrams (too long ago), so am not qualified to comment on that. They could be useful, provided you don't lose touch with what you are actually trying to say. But I do know about talking a lot, as you can see!

    Getting your students to do the talking and thinking is good tactical teaching, in my opinion. It encourages them to work things out for themselves, which is an important life-skill. It also allows the teacher to understand why they have a particular problem, which means he can then guide them to finding the answer for themselves.

    So: "Can you tell me what you were doing this time yesterday? Good. I'll write that on the board. Now, how could we add the information that while you were doing that, the telephone rang?" In these questions to the student I've provided the key words and encouraged her to do the actual sentence construction. If she doesn't manage, we try a slightly different approach. Then we look at hard rain falling, instead of the telephone ringing. And so on.

    I always used to remind myself that running a 'conversation' class meant getting the students talking to each other, with my role being that of guide and mentor. Perhaps I was just being lazy!

  10. #10
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: expressing time relations

    Quote Originally Posted by Hucky View Post
    In an exercise in one of your practical grammar books to practice the past simple/past continuous, resp. it says according to the key:
    One of the problems with writing such exercises is that it is possible to create contexts where so many answers are possible, and often people can give what they think is the correct answer where there are other possibilities, etc. It's a weakness of the form, though they're still useful, but maybe answers should often be taken as guides rather than absolute truths.

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