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Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
Proofreading Service - Pain in the English

Your Pain Is Our Pleasure

24-Hour Proofreading Service—We proofread your Google Docs or Microsoft Word files. We hate grammatical errors with passion. Learn More

By the time

Is it possible to say “by the time we arrived at the cinema, the film was starting”? Or do I have to say “the film had started”? 

Both structures sound ok to me if I use another verb (sleep) instead of “start” (“by the time I got there, he was already sleeping”) so I do not know if I am using the structure right (perhaps I should use “when” and not “by the time”) or if it is the verb “start” (due to its meaning) what makes “by the time we arrived, the film was starting” sound strange. 

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To me, it's a matter of timing. If the first frames, words, etc. were just coming on the screen as you walked in, I'd say "was starting" is correct/accurate. However, if content had been on the screen for 20 or 30 seconds, then I believe "had started" would be more accurate.

Whether you use "when" or "by the time" is to me, a matter of preference. I've used both, but I believe "when" would be more "acceptable" to a greater number of critics.

Change of subject: the use of "what makes" rather than "that makes" in the last sentence is for me, a faux pas.

GeneBurnUSA Dec-10-2019

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Thanks so much

Anxos Dec-10-2019

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Keep in mind that "always" in front of a verb requires the verb's -ing form.

As GeneBurnsUSA said, it is also a matter of timing.

"By the time" usually implies that the action in the second half of the sentence has already started in the past. Here are a few natural-sounding examples:
"By the time the ambulance arrived, it was too late (he was dead)"
"By the time we arrived, the music had stopped"
"By the time I woke up, she was already cooking"

In your specific example:
"When we arrived, the film was starting" would sound best, if the film is indeed starting at the moment you enter the cinema.
"By the time we arrived, the film had started" would sound best, if the film started before you entered the cinema.

"By the time we arrived, the film was already starting" would indeed also sound OK, but do note the difference - "already" ;-)

nebula Dec-23-2019

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I like "had started" much better. Sleeping is an activity that continues over time so in that case either form works. But "starting" happens and then is over.

PeterRodes Jan-07-2020

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user108984 Jul-02-2020

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I think there is a period of some minutes where you can say the film was starting. The thing is, you are probably trying to convey that you are in the unenvious position of rushing to your seat so as not to cause others inconvenience. You're a bit late to the theater in other words. Or you might express yourself in this way because you are rushing to be seated and situated so that you don't miss the very beginning and the overall ambiance of the movie. I don't think we have to get some timer out and firmly state that you can only say was starting within 20 seconds of some almost arbitrary point at the beginning of a film. As we all know so many films of yesteryear and of contemporary film have a lot of fluff at the beginning. There is pomp and circumstance. Planes flying around towers in RKO films. And nowadays there are about 20 different production companies that have to be acknowledged.

I would reserve the use of the phrase had started only if actual scenes in the movie had begun and you might have missed some of them. Say for example you come into the theater and you see what might be an establishing shot for a scene and might be in fact the very first shot of the film, but since it's already on the screen you can't even tell if it's the start or if you might have missed something before it. That is what I would think you meant if you told me the film had started. You came into the theater and saw a scene and maybe even people speaking.

kellyjohnj Oct-23-2020

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