Past continuous and past simple

Past continuous and past simple

Do you know how to use the past continuous and past simple? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

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

Average: 4.2 (201 votes)
Profile picture for user Goutam Paul

Submitted by Goutam Paul on Thu, 05/03/2020 - 16:29

Having uses of was/ware in any other places in grammar? It's make confused me.

Hello Goutam Paul

'was' and 'were' are extremely common verb forms. They are nearly always a past simple form of the verb 'be' or used in the past continuous, but there are other related uses (for example, as the past form of 'there is' and 'there are'). I'd recommend that you take the time to learn them well because you will probably see them a lot!

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by wcyam10 on Mon, 02/03/2020 - 07:05

1)This time last year I _____ at university. Why is it incorrect if i use " studied" instead of " was studying"? 2) At 6 p.m. yesterday it _____ dark. Why "was already getting" is correct but not " already got"? 3) I saw you driving down Green Street yesterday! Where _____? Why "were you going" is the answer instead of "did you go"? Thnk you.

Hello wycam10

'this time' (in 1) implies a period of time, which implies an action in progress, which is why the past simple form is not correct here.

In 2, you could say 'had already got' or 'was already getting' or 'got'; which is correct depends on the context and/or what you want to say. 'already' implies a change that had already happened or that was in progress.

In 3, the previous sentence already establishes an action in progress ('driving down') and so in most contexts it would make sense to continue with the idea of an action in progress.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nataliaoey2912 on Thu, 13/02/2020 - 05:33

Hi, I want to ask for "I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there." Why the anwer 'is we were already closing' ? 'close' is not activties need process. Is it suppose to be 'have already closed the shop'? and please help me, what do you think the best answer for this: "______ yesterday?" "No, it was a nice day." Is the anwer "did it rain" or "was it raining"? and why? Thank you very much.
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Thu, 13/02/2020 - 06:57

In reply to by nataliaoey2912


Hello nataliaoey2912

Re: Grammar test 2 sentence 5, you could indeed also say 'They had already closed the shop when I got there' (using the past perfect) if the shop was indeed closed when you arrived. It's also possible to say 'The shop was already closed' to mean the same thing (though in this case, 'closed' is an adjective). 'They already closed the shop' sounds strange because 'already' refers to a time before you arrived, and when we refer to an earlier time like this, we use the past perfect to show that it was earlier.

'They closed the shop just as I got there' is also possible if they closed and locked the door just as you arrived, that is, in that exact moment. 

'They were closing the shop' (the correct answer in this exercise) is grammatically correct. 'close a shop' doesn't refer to just closing and locking the door, it also refers to all of the things you do before you close it (e.g., make sure all the customers are out, turn off the lights, take the cash to deposit it in the bank, etc.), which is indeed a process that can take some time.

As for the other gap you ask about, 'Did it rain' is the correct answer because the response 'No, it was a nice day' wouldn't be appropriate for 'Was it raining'. The past simple refers to the whole day, which is what the response 'It was a nice day' also refers to. The past continuous form ('Was it raining yesterday?') could be correct in a specific context, but since there is no specific context here, the other answer is the best one.

That's quite a long answer! But I hope it helps you make sense of things. If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team