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 Suguru on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 13:16

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Hi everyone, thanks for making clear and interesting website. I have one question. As you said, 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. I cannot understand "In the second sentence, the guests arrived first and then Jane started cooking." Why does this sentence mean "Jane started cooking", not "already finished cooking before the guests arrived" ? I especially want to know why native speakers recognise this as "started cooking" Thank you very much for your help.

Hello Suguru,

The past simple is used for sequential actions so, unless there is some other indication, when we have more than one action described with the past simple we assume that they form a sequence.

In this example we have two actions in the past simple and so we assume one precedes the other. The use of 'when' suggests that the second action was prompted by the first.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by moniMee on Sat, 16/01/2021 - 05:52

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We were cleaning the house all morning. Can I use "We cleaned the house this morning" ? What's the difference?

Hello moniMee,

The continuous form (were cleaning) emphasises the ongoing nature of the activity while the simple form (cleaned) emphasises the action as a completed whole. Which you use depends upon the context and the speaker's intention or focus, neither of which we have here as your sentence is presented in isolation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by YolkLord42 on Fri, 15/01/2021 - 10:34

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I have one Question: Where can I found the irregular verbs?
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Submitted by Rafaela1 on Wed, 06/01/2021 - 12:44

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The bird started eating on the tree while I was having a meal inside a house. ;)

Submitted by DennisT on Wed, 06/01/2021 - 07:15

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"I broke my leg when I was skiing." Before yet I thought, 'while' goes with past continuous and 'when' with past tense. But that sentence proved me wrong and confused.....

Hello DennisT,

While is certainly more common with the past continuous, but it is also possible to use when without changing the meaning. However, it is not possible to use while before the clause with the simple verb:

He arrived while I was washing my car = correct

He arrived when I was washing my car = correct

I was washing my car when he arrived = correct

I was washing my car while he arrived = incorrect

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by oussamach on Fri, 25/12/2020 - 22:55

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thank you.. my big problem in english is the grammar. specialy te tenses . i can understand when i read or when some one speak to me .. but i can't reply correctly or write a text without mistakes.. and i know that i have a lof of mistakes in my comment.. keep going. thank you