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: 3.4 (9 votes)

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).