the children played vs the children were playing

Dear Porfessor: the following passage was taken from Bas Aarts and April McMahon Eds., The Handbook of English Linguistics, “An eventive expression normally
is interpreted as representing a complete eventuality (20), while an atelic
expression such as a process (21) or state (22) is interpreted as representing an
incomplete one.
(20) Mr. Blandings built his dream house.
(21) The children played.
(22) John was hungry.”

My question is: according to the adduced text, “the children played” is interpreted as incomplete, why not say “the children were playing”? what’s the difference between the two if they are both interpreted as ongoing past happenings?
thank you

hi Guzhao67! if I’m right, usually simple past “the children played” shows the fact that happened in the past. but when you use past continious “the children were playing” you want to show the process of doing smth. you can use this time if you want to show, for example, that smth happened during children’s play.


Telicity can be difficult to understand because it referrs to the completeness or incompleteness of a verb (phrase), but the meaning of “complete” in this context is not what you will find in the dictionary!

I must say, understanding the concept of telicity as it relates to learning the English language would be a bit like the needing to understand the Pythagorean theory in order to be a cashier. Perhaps you are like me, Guzhao, and love to learn every detail of a subject that interests you.

Here is my best attempt at explaing it:

Telic expression= the action occurs within a specific time frame.

It is natural to say, “Joe built his dream house within a month” whereas it is unnatural to say, “The children played within a month”

Atelic expression= the action occurs without a specific ending time.

It is natural to say, “The children played for a month” but awkward to say, “Joe built his dream house for a month”

Note that even though one might undertand the sentence, “Joe built his dream house for a month” to mean that it took Joe a month to build his dream house, the correct way to say it would be, “Joe spent a month building his dream house” or “It took a month for Joe to build his dream house” etc.