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 (194 votes)

Submitted by frknakgn on Mon, 21/12/2020 - 19:01

This is a hard tense :D

Submitted by Loc Duc on Sun, 20/12/2020 - 14:49

the teacher can help me? the question '' I didn't buy anything. They ... the shop when I got there. I think the answer '' already closed'' is still correct. as you said before it's unusual using the continuous tense with already so that's why the answer to this question is '' were already closing''.

Hello Loc Duc,

I'm afraid that 'already closed' is not correct here. I explained this to Kaisoo93 in a comment on 28 November, which you can see just below.

Please have a look and then if you have any other questions, feel free to let us know.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ZIZO on Sun, 13/12/2020 - 11:31

Hi teachers, I read above "What were you doing at 8 p.m. last night?" Can we say the following? 1 What were you doing last night/ last week / yesterday? 2 As I was sleeping last night, I heard a noise. *Can we use time expressions such as last night/ last week /yesterday with the past continuous (not only with the simple past)? Could you explain, please? Thanks in advance.

Hello ZIZO,

Yes, sentence 1 works with any of those time expressions and sentence 2 is also correct.

Yes, you can use those time expressions with the past continuous as well as the past simple.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Kaisoo93 on Sat, 28/11/2020 - 13:45

Hello Teachers, In grammar test2 "I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there." Is it possible to fill "had been closing"? Similarly, "When we arrived at the restaurant he ________ his meal already." Are both "had started eating" and "had been eating" correct? (he was still eating when we arrived) Thank you

Hello Kaisoo93,

No, I'm afraid not. These grammar tests were written so that there is only one correct answer.

In the first case, the idea is that the shop was already closed when you arrived. If it was in the process of being closed, we'd say 'were closing', not 'had been closing' and the previous sentence would probably be something more like 'I wasn't able to get in the shop'.

In the second case, it's unusual to use a continuous tense with 'already'. The action of beginning something like eating a meal only takes a moment.

Hope that helps.

All the best,


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Woo2020 on Fri, 20/11/2020 - 14:46

Hi teacher, I am quite confused about some differences between these two grammars. For example, I was working all day and I worked all day. Do they mean the same?

Hi Woo2020,

Both of these forms describe actions in the past, but there is a difference in emphasis.

We use the simple form (worked) when we are thinking of the action as a completed whole, while we use the continuous (was working) when we are thinking of the activity as a process, particularly as the background to some other action or event, such as an event which interrupts the working before it ends (i.e. happens in the middle of it).



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by diidem on Wed, 18/11/2020 - 13:03

Hey everyone, ı have a question about grammar test2 "I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there." why did we chose to " already closed" option? ı think ıt should be "were already closing" can someone explain?