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)

Hello mariancs,

While it's true that we often explain sentences such as this one as examples of one action (past simple) interrupting another action (past continuous), this can be misleading if taken literally. The main point is that one action was in progress (past continuous) and another action occurs with the first one or for some period of time during the first one.

So in your first example, it doesn't necessarily mean that I stopped eating grapes. I was eating them before she arrived, could still be eating them when she arrived, and continued eating them after she arrived.

If you switch around the clauses, there's no real change in meaning, though there could be a change of emphasis. It's difficult to explain without a specific context and/or knowing exactly what the speaker means to say.

'while' and 'when' can often be interchanged, but again it really depends on the situation. In general, though, 'while' more clearly expresses a duration or something in progress, so often it's used for that reason.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by isidro1255 on Tue, 16/11/2021 - 05:53


I was studying when my dad called me for dinner

Submitted by Anara SN on Sat, 13/11/2021 - 20:25


Hi there. Can I use past continuous to show two actions at the same time, but in different places? For example: While the kids were enjoying their summer holidays, parents had their own vacation time. (Kids and parents were in different countries, but all had summer vacations at the same week).

Submitted by Vanya on Thu, 28/10/2021 - 12:47


Hello . I have a question. What tense do you use for the sentence : I ___(leave) my book at home so I didn’t study in the cafe.

Hello Vanya,

There are a few different forms that could work here -- which one is best depends on the situation. Two forms that could work in different situations, though, are 'left' or 'had left'.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by eager2know on Sat, 23/10/2021 - 01:11


Can we use the following structures to show the same thing?
While she was cooking in the kitchen, Ben fell and hurt himself.
// When she was cooking in the kitchen, Ben fell and hurt himself.
Ben fell and hurt himself while/ when she was cooking in the kitchen.
Please reply. Thanks

Hello eager2know,

Yes, you can use either while or when in those examples.

Both 'when' and 'while' can be used when one action happens during another action, but 'when' can also have other uses, such as showing a sequence.

The LearnEnglish Team