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 (192 votes)

Hello Kamwengv,

The idea of something being 'in progress' is that it began before and was interrupted by another event before it was completed. For example:

I read a magazine. John arrived.

These are three sequential events which happen one after the other.

I was reading a book. John arrived.

Here, I was in the middle of reading the magazine when John arrived; his arrival interrupted my reading, which was not finished.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Kamwengv on Tue, 13/10/2020 - 08:36

How come it happened for the above example Three years ago, we were living in our home town. There is a specific time mentioned. It should be a simple past tense rather than past continuous tense. Please advise!

Hello Turki123456,

In 1, 2, 3 and 4 both forms are possible -- as you suggest, one or the other would be better depending on the meaning or context. Without the word 'yesterday', both forms are also possible in 2.

In 5, I'd say 'was sleeping' would not be correct because 'through the night' implies that the period is already over and I can't imagine a situation in which the form would make sense. Perhaps there is some context when it could work, but I can't think of one off the top of my head!

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Turki123456,

If you mean the verb inside the time clauses, that sounds like a good general rule, especially with 'before' and 'until', but I don't think it's always true. For example, 'Before I was brushing my teeth, I was talking on the phone'. That's a rather unusual sentence, but it's grammatically possible.

Remember also that there are many other tenses that are possible in such time clauses (e.g. present simple, present perfect, past perfect).

Hope this helps.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lv_2020 on Tue, 06/10/2020 - 23:45

Hello!! I have one doubt when using the simple past and past continuous when is doesn't mean an action interrupting the other. In the sentence: When I _________ (finish) the book, I ______ (cry), can I use both? 1) When I was finishing the book, I cried; 2) When I finished the book, I was crying. I think both are correct, but their meaning are slighty different, is this analysis right? Same for: I ________(study) when my mother __________ (cook) dinner. Could I use: 1) I was studying when my mother cooked dinner or 2) I studied when my mother was cooking dinner? thks
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 06:40

In reply to by lv_2020


Hello Iv_2020,

Yes, you're right in thinking that the meaning is different. In fact, there are two more possible forms:

3) finished, cried
4) was finishing, was crying

Strictly speaking, all four of them are possible, but 1 would be unusual because it suggests that you cried for a brief time while you were finishing the book but had stopped crying when you finished. 

The most common combination here is 3, which suggests that you finished the book and then started to cry (and cried for a little bit).

For the other set of sentences, again, different forms are possible and the best one depends on what you mean.

Hope this helps.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nadaqattan on Sat, 03/10/2020 - 17:22

Hiii. This is Nada. I have a question about using "while". One of the textbooks I'm teaching now says that the simple past can be used with while like: "He was enjoying himself while the FBI searched for him." Is this sentence correct? Many Thanks

Hi Nada,

Yes, that's perfectly fine. You can use the simple form after while and in some contexts it is more common.

It may be helpful to contrast two versions of your sentence:

He was enjoying himself while the FBI searched for him.

This could suggest that the search happened during the dtime he was having fun. It's not entirely clear, and the context would be important.

He enjoyed himself while the FBI was searching for him.

Here, the enjoyment happens within the time of the search.



The LearnEnglish Team