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I know that the tense of Japanese subordinate clauses is always relative to the time the main clause happens (which is different than in English). But consider the following:

子供が[昼寝]{ひるね}をしていた

Consider now two interpretations of this statement:

  1. Interpretation (A).

enter image description here

  1. Interpretation (B).

enter image description here

Are both (A) and (B) potentially correct interpretations of the sentence? The reason I ask this is because I'm trying to understand how

子供が昼寝をしていた間に、本を読み終えた。

While the kids were taking a nap, I finished reading a book.

can possibly make sense without interpretation (B) being permissible. As I see it:

  1. The sentence under interpretation (A). This doesn't make any sense:

enter image description here 2. The sentence under interpretation (B). This does seem to make sense: enter image description here

So the only way this sentence possibly makes sense is if we force interpretation (B) on 「子供が昼寝をしていた」, no?

NOTE: This sentence is from a tutorial on ~ていた間に from IMABI.

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    It simply means the statement that the tense of Japanese subordinate clauses is always relative to the time the main clause happens is false. This seems related.
    – aguijonazo
    Dec 28, 2022 at 2:52

1 Answer 1

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It will depend on context or meaning of the sentence. For your case, yes, (B) is the only possibility.

Consider

  1. 子供が学校に行っていた間に買い物をすませた。While child is away for the school, I finished shopping.
  2. セールがやっていた間にいろいろ買った. While they have the sale, I bought many things.

For 1, only (B) is possible. Otherwise it does not make sense. For 2, the sale may or may not have ended. So (A) or (B) is possible.


FYI using present tense in the subordinate clause (子供が昼寝をしている間に, 子供が学校に行っている間に, セールがやっている間に) does not change the meaning, and is possibly more natural.

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  • In the sentence I provided and the first sentence you provided, does switching the tense of the subordinate clause to the present progressive literally not change the meaning of the sentence in any way at all (even in terms of connotation, etc)? If so, it seems strange to me that the subordinate clauses could be put in the past progressive grammatically, given that they are potentially confusing.
    – George
    Dec 27, 2022 at 23:06
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    @George Generally, yes, they are totally the same. If anything, past progressive is odd sometimes. 本を読んでいた時に子供が返ってきた is less likely to be used than 本を読んでいるときに・・. It may depend on broader contexts though, like if the speaker is recounting distant memories, past progr. may be preferred.
    – sundowner
    Dec 28, 2022 at 6:43

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