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 (201 votes)

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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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


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.



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


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,
The LearnEnglish Team

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


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.

The LearnEnglish Team