Past continuous and past simple

Do you know how to use the past continuous and past simple?

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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Submitted by jprakashpranav on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 06:28

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Mr. Jonathan,

Is it correct to say that "While John scored very low marks in the exam, his father became very angry."

Hello jprakashpranav,

The sentence is not correct. If John's father is angry following John's bad marks then 'when' is needed in place of while':

When John scored very low marks in the exam, his father became very angry.

Here 'when' shows a sequence of events: first John got bad marks and then his father became angry.

 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by Alicelle on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 02:57

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Hello,
I'm wondering if we can use "while" before the simple past tense. For example, "It was raining while she had the accident".
I was taught that when you want to combine the past continuous and the past simple, you should use "when" before the past simple and "while" before the past continuous.
Many thanks!

Hi Alicelle,

Yes, it is possible. This may be done if the action has duration, e.g. It was raining while she waited for the bus. / It was raining while she walked home, and you want to emphasise that the rain happened throughout the duration of that action. It's also possible to say 'was waiting' and 'was walking' in these examples. The meaning is similar but somebody might use the past simple rather than past continuous if this is a part of a long story that they are telling, for example.

Using "while" with "had the accident" is grammatically possible, but personally I wouldn't use it because "had the accident" is probably a short and instantaneous action.

I do agree with what you were taught, but I think of it as a general pattern rather than 100% always true.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by DeepMS on Mon, 02/05/2022 - 13:37

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Excercise 1 When we saw the crime, we _____ the police.
Correct Answer is "were calling" and not "called"

Excercise 2

When I heard the phone ring, I _____ it straight away.
Correct Answer is was "answering it straight away" not "answered"

How ?What I am not able to understand here?

Hello DeepMS,

The correct sentences are:

  1. When we saw the crime, we called the police.
  2. When I heard the phone right, I answered it straight away.

Both of them describe a sequence of actions, not one action in the middle of another one.

If you'd like more practice of this grammar, I'd suggest having a look at our Talking about the past page.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nadyanightingale on Thu, 17/03/2022 - 19:53

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It's sometimes still a little bit unclear and confusing but this explanation was very helpful. Thank you!

Submitted by ShinYunn on Mon, 28/02/2022 - 04:40

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Hello...I have a doubt about this Question in the test 2:

They _____ the shop when I got there, so I couldn't go in and buy anything.
A. already closed
B. were already closing

Why the answer cannot be 'already closed' ?

Hello ShinYunn,

The past simple with 'when' indicates that one action occurred immediately at the moment of another action, and was possibly prompted by it. For example:

"They closed the shop when I got there, so I couldn't go in and buy anything."

In this sentence the shop is closed at the moment I arrive, almost as if the shopkeeper saw me coming and decided to close because he or she didn't like me!

 

With this in mind, I think you can see why 'already' cannot be added. 'Already' would suggest the action happened earlier, which is inconsistent with the past simple/when construction.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Technically, when we reference an earlier action as in this sentence and both actions are completed (meaning it was closed and the employees had gone home), the first action that happened is expressed in Past Perfect. The correct answer would be: They had already closed the shop when I got there... Answer B implies that the employees were still in the shop and they had already started the closing process but had not finished,

Submitted by as06 on Tue, 15/02/2022 - 14:03

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Hello! I have a doubt about past simple and past continuous. The sentence is what _______ (they/do) at 10pm last night - it was very noisy. Even though past continuous seems more logical to me, is past simple possible as well?Could "what did they do at 10pm last night - it was noisy?" be understood as e.g. they broke the window at 10pm last night and that window breaking was noisy? Thanks in advance.

Hello as06,

In theory, yes, the past simple is possible for a situation like this. In other words, you can speak about them breaking the window (or doing whatever) at 10pm with the past simple. The thing is, though, that 'it was noisy' is generally going to be understood as a description of a situation, which makes a past continuous form more appropriate in all but some unusual cases.

If you changed 'it was noisy' to 'there was a loud noise', then the past simple form would work, though the past continuous form would also work. The form that the speaker uses shows how they are thinking about the situation.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nouhaila on Fri, 21/01/2022 - 01:44

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Hi everybody, I have a question why the gerund of the verb develop is developing not developping, why we do not follow the rule of CVC which says when we have a consonant+vowel+consonant we have to double the last letter of the word. for example: stop---->stopping or begin----->beginning

Hi nouhaila,

Unfortunately, I can't give you a reason for this other than to say that English spelling is very inconsistent. One sound can be represented by several spelling combinations (tree, ceiling, thief and Peter all contain /i/, for example), and one combination of letters can be pronounced in several ways ('ough' is pronounced differently in through, though, bough, cough, enough and thorough, for example).

Unlike some languages such as German, English does not have a central authority for spelling and grammar rules. Instead, rules develop organically through use and this inevitably leads to exceptions and inconsistencies. The example you quote is one of these. I think it's best to think of rules like this as tendencies rather than fixed rules.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Luis Castillo,

The stress is on the last syllable, as you say, but that's not a rule for when to double the consonant. I wish it were – things would be easier if we had a nice rule like that to follow! However, there are many words where there stress is not on the last syllable and yet we double the consonant.

TRAvel > travelling

FORmat > formatting

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by rina_rinast on Thu, 20/01/2022 - 23:13

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Hello! Why do we use Past simple instead of Present Perfect in this sentence? "I woke up early this morning." The day has not finished yet, has it?
Thank you in advance!

Hello rina_rinast,

We think of 'wake up' as a single finished action and so the past simple is used. You could say 'I have been awake since...' as being awake is an ongoing state. However, 'wake up' is not ongoing.

It's similar to the verb 'start'. This is not an action which is ongoing, so the past simple is used:
"I started early this morning."
"I've been working since early this morning."

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by marcel16 on Tue, 11/01/2022 - 01:29

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Hello I have a question. What tense would you use for the following sentences, Past Simple or Past Continuous? Could you justfy your choice?

I ______________________ (ring) at about 3 o’clock yesterday, but you
______________________ (not pick) up the phone. – What ______________________ (you do) ?

Thank You in advance

Hello marcel16,

I'd suggest 'rang', 'didn't pick', and 'were you doing'. The actions of ringing someone and picking up the phone are fairly discrete actions, which are usually best expressed with the past simple. The past continuous works better for the question because it's asking about an activity in progress at that time.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by tanapol.sh on Mon, 06/12/2021 - 13:36

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Hi,

I confused about this sentence in the quiz: "They _____ the shop when I got there, so I couldn't go in and buy anything."

I chose "already closed" because I though that the shop was closed before I got there.

Is there any particular thing to be observed in the sentence like this? so I can choose a proper structure to match the meaning.

Thanks,

Hello tanapol.sh,

'they already closed the shop' would work if the perspective of the speaker was the present moment -- for example, one person says, 'Shall I go to the shop to get some milk?' and their interlocutor could say 'They already closed the shop'. Notice how in this situation, they are speaking about the possibility of going to the shop now.

This is different from the sentence 5 in Grammar test 2, where someone is reporting what happened in the past. The idea is that when they arrived at the store, the people who work there were in the process of closing it and so they couldn't go in. In this situation, you could say 'were closing' (which indicates it was being closed when you arrived) or 'closed' (which indicates it was closed right when you arrived, almost in your face!).

You could also say 'had already closed', which would indicate it closed before you arrived, but of course that's not the grammar point being covered on this page.

I hope that helps you make sense of it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by mariancs on Tue, 30/11/2021 - 18:32

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Hi, great information :) I just have a doubt in this sentence:

I was eating grapes when she arrived.

(This is necessary to be interrupted action? Or could be parallel action? Because I think is not clear if the person who was eating stopped or continue...)

And what happens if I switch the sentence in this form:

She arrived when I was eating grapes.

This would be again interrupted or parallel? And in expressions with while, can we change the word while with when? Like this:

Sam was singing when Tom was studying.

Thank you, greetings to all the team!

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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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I was studying when my dad called me for dinner

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

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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

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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,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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

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Hello,
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.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hussainhxh on Thu, 22/04/2021 - 22:58

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Thanks for nice lesson

Submitted by Mike210801 on Sun, 14/03/2021 - 14:10

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Hello! I have a doubt about this sentence: " I didn't buy anything. They were already closing the shop when I got there." Is it related to any grammar rules on this page. Cuz, I don't know what is the meaning of the past continuous in this sentence want to show about?

Hello Mike210801,

The idea is that when you arrived at the store, the people who work there were in the process of closing it and so you couldn't go in. In this situation, you could say 'had already closed' or 'were closing'.

We've changed the sentence a little bit to try to make this clearer.

Sorry for any confusion!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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
Profile picture for user Peter M.

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

Submitted by Sumair on Mon, 01/02/2021 - 17:50

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May I say that "while" use for past continuous and "When" use for past tense?

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

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?