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 (202 votes)
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,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Dilnoza Sulaymonova on Fri, 12/06/2020 - 11:53

thanks a lot

Submitted by Lal on Tue, 19/05/2020 - 14:28

Hello Sir A. Is that fresh bread I smell ?. B. Yes, your mother has been baking all morning. Referring to 'B' can't we say " had been baking all morning" Please let me know Thank you. Regards Lal

Hello Lal,

Since there is a present result (the smell), the present perfect is most appropriate here. Although the context is limited, the past perfect does not make sense in the sentence as it stands.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Epardolez on Sat, 02/05/2020 - 22:27

Thanks a lot! Greetings from Chile.

Submitted by Elaine20 on Sat, 02/05/2020 - 06:33

Hi the learnEngish team, In the Grammar test 2, Q5, could you explain why the answer is "were already closing" ? I thought the answer is "already closed", because of the shop is closed, they didn't buy anything. Does it make sense?

Hi Elaine20,

It is possible to use a past form in this sentence, but we would use a past perfect:

...they had already closed...

The past simple does not work with 'already' in this context. You could make the sentence without 'already' (...they closed the shop when I arrived), but that would have a strange meaning. It would suggest that they waited until you arrived and then closed the shop because they didn't like you for some reason!

Out of the two answers possible, were already closing is the correct answer. It tells us that they were already in the process of closing the shop - clearing out the last customers, emptying the tills, turning off the lights etc - when you arrived, so you couldn't buy anything.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Reza on Tue, 28/04/2020 - 14:17

Hi, Could please tell me which sentence (s) is correct: 1- We were playing football between 4 and 5 pm yesterday. 2- We played football between 4 and 5 pm yesterday. 3- We were playing football for an hour yesterday. 4- We played football for an hour yesterday. Thanks
Profile picture for user Kirk Moore

Submitted by Kirk Moore on Tue, 28/04/2020 - 14:30

In reply to by Reza


Hello Reza

They could all be correct in specific contexts, though 3 is a bit strange.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team