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

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Average: 3.6 (10 votes)

Submitted by Maahir on Sun, 14/03/2021 - 08:01

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Hi, May the both sentences be same. I was trying to answer his questions. he shouted at me. He shouted at me while I was trying to answer his question. I would also like to know if there is a rule for the word order. means which tense is comes firs. past or past continues? Thanks
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Submitted by Peter M. on Tue, 16/03/2021 - 07:50

In reply to by Maahir

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Hi Maahir,

You can change the order of the clauses - there is no rule about which must come first. However, we need a conjunction to join them. In your second sentence you have a conjunction (while). In your first sentence you also need one:

I was trying to answer his questions when he shouted at me.

He shouted at me while I was trying to answer his question.

Generally, we use while before past continuous and when before past simple in these kinds of sentences.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Rafaela1 on Sun, 07/03/2021 - 13:00

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While I was watching telly, I suddenly felt sleepy.

Submitted by Iwona on Sat, 06/03/2021 - 12:38

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I struggle with one sentence: I first met Sandra 10 years ago. We studied/were studying at the same university. I don't know which one is correct.

Hello Iwona,

Both sentences are possible, but I think the context suggests that 'were studying' is the better option as the meeting occurred at some point during your time studying there. If you use 'studied' then the two events (studying and meeting) are not connected. In this case, you may have met Sandra and only later discovered that you had a university in common, for example.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sumair,

That's certainly a tendency, but it's not a fixed rule.

 

As a time marker, while emphasises that one action occurred during or at the same time as another. When can also mean this, but it can also mean that one thing triggered (caused or started) another event, so context is important.

 

For example:

1. While (When) Sue was leaving, the phone rang.

2. When Sue left, the phone rang.

In the first sentence, both when and while are possible but while is more likely as it emphasises that one action (the phone ringing) occurred during another (Sue leaving) which had not finished.

In the second sentence, only when is possible as the actions are sequential: first Sue leaves and only then does the phone ring.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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