I have got a question about a grammar problem. My friend had a discussion with a teacher about this sentence: "Julia .............. just................... (cover) herself in sun tan lotion when the sun ................... (go) behind a large black cloud."
She wrote: "Julia was just covering herself in sun tan lotion when the sun went behind a large cloud."
The teacher, however, says it should be: "Julia had just covered herself in sun tan lotion when the sun went behind a large black cloud."
Could you please tell me if we are right or the teacher is right? I am looking forward to hearing from you. Best regards, Alicja
This question can be answered in many ways, and I think it may be helpful for me to go through the thoughts I had when writing this article. On first reading I assessed your friend's sentence to be grammatical, so a teacher would be wrong to say it was incorrect. However, your friend's answer was not the one the teacher was looking for, and I thought I knew why.
Why was the teacher expecting the answer, "Julia had just covered herself in sun tan lotion when the sun went behind a large black cloud"? One possible answer was that he was looking at a book that gave this answer, so did not consider your friend's suggestion (I am sure I have done this myself when teaching sometimes). But when looking at the two sentences more closely, the teacher's does sound more natural. Why could that be? I had to think a bit more deeply about these two statements.
I suspected it was to do with the word just. I tried listening to the two sentences without that adverb. "Julia was covering herself in sun tan lotion when the sun went behind a large cloud." The continuous action of applying the lotion quite likely continued, even though the protection was no longer needed! I checked that meaning by substituting another similar sentence. "James was sleeping when the post arrived." Yes, perhaps James was woken by the postman, perhaps he was not. So what effect did the word just have on adding it back into the sentence? Just here could either mean only (i.e. she was only putting on sun cream, not reading a book at the same time) or it could mean at that precise time.
The ambiguity is caused by the fact that there are many different uses and meanings of the word just. In fact, the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary lists eleven distinct meanings and explains and illustrates them over one and a half columns. Therefore to use the word just in this sentence does not add meaning, but creates a possible ambiguity. In fact, in the case of my substitute sentence, "James was just sleeping when the post arrived" the addition of just makes complete nonsense, as we rarely do something else when sleeping, and no other interpretation of just seems appropriate! Therefore I am afraid your friend's sentence, whilst being correct grammatically, is not a good conveyor of meaning as the word just contributes nothing.
So I tried the same analysis on the teacher's sentence, "Julia had covered herself in sun tan lotion when the sun went behind a large black cloud." Without just, this sentence had somehow become vague and unfocussed. Julia had completed her anointing at some time previously, and later the sun went in, but there is no logical relationship between these two events. If we wished to state that Julia's suntan cream and effort were wasted as it was not sunny any more, we need to suggest that the sun disappeared the second Julia completed her application. To do this we need the word just (meaning at the same moment as) in the last sentence - "Julia had just covered herself in sun tan lotion when the sun went behind a large black cloud." This sentence is not only grammatically correct, it is dramatic. It conveys its meaning succinctly, and so is a very good example of the effective use of English. Your friend's answer, while grammatically correct, was not good English in that it lacked precision.
So the teacher was instinctively correct in saying this sentence was the best solution to the problem set: "Fill in the blanks using the correct form of the verbs stated: 'Julia .............. just................... (cover) herself in sun tan lotion when the sun ................... (go) behind a large black cloud'." However, the writer of the textbook from which he had taken this sentence had not done his job properly in ensuring that no other answer was grammatically possible. This situation is not uncommon, unfortunately, as stating a right answer to a question is a lot easier than considering all the possible alternative answers. As learners by definition are likely to know less than their teacher or writers of their textbook, this type of problem does not surface too often, but in your case, Alicja, your friend and yourself persevered, discussed your alternative with your teacher, and then wrote to me about it. Well done!
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