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)

Submitted by nadaqattan on Mon, 05/10/2020 - 15:23

In reply to by Peter M.

Thanks Peter. I appreciate it.

Submitted by dnna on Mon, 14/09/2020 - 23:26

Hello sir, there is a sentence in my textbook: "Frank was constantly asking for money last year when he WAS still out of work", our English teacher ask us why they use WAS but not WAS BEING. I am stuck with this. Could you please tell me? Thank you.

Hello dnna,

The verb 'be' is a stative verb and is very rarely used in the continuous, so the present simple is used here.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aymen Aouali on Thu, 03/09/2020 - 23:17

I was not know that we can use tow past continuous verbs in the same sentences.

Submitted by fadi.kazan on Wed, 02/09/2020 - 09:30

Hi, The last time I saw her, she ( was driving - drove ) a red car. What is the correct answer?
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Wed, 02/09/2020 - 13:28

In reply to by fadi.kazan


Hello fadi.kazan,

In most situations, 'was driving' would be the correct form here. The idea is that if we saw her behind the wheel, she was probably in the process of driving at that point, and so the continuous form is the appropriate one.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Linhhh on Sun, 30/08/2020 - 09:31

What's wrong with saying "they already closed the shop when I got there"? I don't see anything wrong with the grammar.

Hello Linhhh,

The times that 'already' and 'when I got there' refer to are incongruous. 'already' implies that they closed the shop before you got there, and so then it's strange to say 'when I got there', which says the closing and your arrival happened at the same time.

You could say 'They had already closed the shop when I got there' (or 'The shop was closed when I got there') or 'They closed the shop when I got there', though note these mean slightly different things.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Sir, i want to ask a question. Is it possible for me to say "They closed the shop when i got there."?