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Past continuous and past simple

Do you know how to use the past continuous and past simple?

Look at these examples to see how the past continuous and past simple are used.

When I woke up this morning, it was snowing.
I was sleeping when you called me.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Past continuous and past simple: Grammar test 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

The past continuous and the past simple help us to show how two past actions or situations are connected.

Past simple

The past simple shows us that an action was in the past, not in the present. Regular past simple verbs have -ed at the end (e.g. called, played, arrived). Irregular verbs have a different form, usually with a different vowel sound (e.g. wake woke, break broke, feel felt).

My parents called me yesterday.
I woke up early this morning.
Sam played basketball when he was at university.

We make the negative with didn't and the infinitive verb.

My parents didn't call me yesterday.
I didn't wake up early this morning.

We make the question form with did and then the subject and infinitive verb.

Did you wake up early this morning?
Did Sam play basketball when he was at university?

Past continuous

The past continuous shows us that the action was already in progress at a certain time in the past.

What were you doing at 8 p.m. last night? I was studying.

This means that I started studying before 8 p.m. and I continued after 8 p.m.

The past continuous can also show that an activity was in progress for some time, not just for a moment.

We were cleaning the house all morning.

We make the past continuous with was or were and the -ing form of the verb.

She couldn't come to the party. She was working.
Three years ago, we were living in my home town.
I tried to give him some advice, but he wasn't listening.
What were you doing this time last year?

Past continuous and past simple

When we use these two tenses together, it shows us that the past simple action happened in the middle of the past continuous action, while it was in progress.

While I was studying, I suddenly felt sleepy.

We often use these tenses to show an action interrupting another action.

I broke my leg when I was skiing.
As I was going to work, I saw an old friend.
We were watching television when the power went off.

Can you see a difference in the meaning of these two sentences?

When the guests arrived, Jane was cooking dinner.
When the guests arrived, Jane cooked dinner.

In the first one, Jane started cooking dinner before the guests arrived. We know that because it uses the past continuous. In the second sentence, the guests arrived first and then Jane started cooking.

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Past continuous and past simple: Grammar test 2

Language level

Beginner: A1
Pre-intermediate: A2

Comments

Hello Sir.
I have a problem.
In many student's books in my country is written that after "when" is always Past Simple !!! However I've seen a lot of examples that it's not - "I broke my leg when I was skiing." What do you think?
My next question - can we say: When I broke my leg, I was skiing. or When I was skiing, I broke my leg.
Thanks for your answer.

Hi Arcasso,

Yes! After when we can use various tenses, not just past simple. I'm not sure why those books suggest only using past simple, but other tenses are definitely possible.

About your other question, yes – both versions are fine. But there is a difference in their focus. When introduces a background action. So, if you say When I broke my leg, I was skiing, breaking my leg is the background, and skiing is the focus (i.e. the speaker's main topic). The speaker would probably continue talking about skiing (not breaking my leg). If you say When I was skiing, I broke my leg, breaking my leg is the focus.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Great explanation

I was watching TV, when an earthquake hit. :0

1) Mr. Peter had two sons. Does this mean Mr. Peter is alive and he lost his two sons (or) Mr. Peter is dead and is survived by two sons.

2) If Peter has 5 siblings and 3 of them passed away. should it be
a) Peter has 5 siblings and only 2 of them alive, or
b) Peter had 5 siblings and only 2 of them alive.

Hello manu,

Your first example really depends on the context. All we can say from the sentence is that the man no longer has two sons. He may be dead or his sons may be dead; we do not know.

 

In your second example, had is the normal choice. When a person has died we generally no longer speak of them with present tenses. Thus, a person might say that they had a child (if the child is dead), or that they were married (if they are now divorced or widowed).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,

Concerning the usage of both tenses together, quoting from the article above: "When we use these two tenses together, it shows us that the past simple action happened in the middle of the past continuous action, while it was in progress.

Example - While I was studying, I suddenly felt sleepy.

We often use these tenses to show an action interrupting another action.

Example - I broke my leg when I was skiing."

Does this mean that the simple past action must occur exactly at the midpoint of the longer action expressed by present continuous (for example (let's say the skiing occurred from 10 to 11 AM, and the breaking of leg occurred exactly at 10:55AM), can I still say "I broke my leg when I was skiing"? of is it a case where "I broke my leg when I was skiing" only applies if the "skiing occurred from 10 to 11 AM, and the breaking of leg occurred exactly at 10:30AM - midpoint of the action of skiing"?

Also, other than a simple past action interrupting the past continuous, can a timing, instead of an action in the simple past, also interrupt the past continuous action, e.g. "Last night at 8pm, I was studying" - to mean that I started studying before 8 p.m. and I continued after 8 p.m?

Also, if timing serves as the interruption instead of a simple past action, must the timing be the exact mid point of the interrupted action?

Hello VegitoBlue,

The past simple action takes place at any time during the past continuous action, not at the exact midpoint.

You are also right in thinking that another time reference that is not the past simple can 'interrupt' the past continuous action. It doesn't have to be at the exact midpoint -- it can be at any time during that period of time.

One of the possible meanings of the continuous aspect is that of duration in time, so you can refer to a point or even period of time within that using some kind of time reference, which includes phrases such as 'at 8pm' or 'When she arrived' (and many others).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk, you mentioned that "One of the possible meanings of the continuous aspect is that of duration in time, so you can refer to a point or even period of time within that using some kind of time reference" - I'm afraid I don't quite get what you mean. Could you kindly explain further?

Also, by point in time, are you referring to time references such as "I was studying at 8pm (point in time being 'at 8pm' which interrupts the past continuous action of 'I was studying')" or "I was bathing when she arrived (point in time being 'when she arrived' which interrupts the past continuous action of 'I was bathing')" ?

Lastly, could you cite examples involving "period of time"?

Thank you.

Hello VegitoBlue,

An example of a point in time would be 'at 8pm', as in the example you gave, though I wouldn't say that 'at 8pm' 'interrupts' 'I was studying'. The way I'd recommend thinking of it is that a continuous action was occurring, and 'at 8pm' refers to one point during that period. Your analysis of the sentence about bathing looks good to me.

Note that 'a point in time' can be many different things. For example, in a text about financial markets in the early 21st century, a sentence like 'Stock prices dropped precipitously in 2008' uses 'in 2008' as a point of time. But 'in 2008' can also be a period of time -- in a sentence such as 'He started five different jobs in 2008', for example, 'in 2008' refers to the course of a year. 

The other parts of a text and especially the verb forms tell you whether 'in 2008' refers to a point in time or a period of time.

In a sentence like 'In the early 1990s, I was studying medicine in Birmingham', there is a reference to a larger period of time ('in the early 1990s') and another shorter period of time within it ('I was studying medicine').

Hope this clear it all up for you.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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