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)

Hi Claire Rabbit,

No, "when" can be put before the first clause or the second. These sentences mean the same thing:

  • We were watching television when the power went off.
  • When we were watching television, the power went off.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Bukhary on Fri, 08/07/2022 - 05:22


During last summer many houses............. (destory)

Profile picture for user Denys

Submitted by Denys on Wed, 25/05/2022 - 14:46


Good afternoon, gentlemen,
I kindly ask for you assisnence and explanation with the following. I was asked to put the verbs in brackets in the correct form, Past Simple and / or past Continuous. There was no any other context, but this:

‘What ...... (the policeman / to tell) us?’ – ‘He ...... (to warn) us to be attentive as workers ...... (to do) roadworks and the road ...... (to narrow) ahead.’

I chose "was the policeman telling", "warned", "were doing" and "was narrowing". I started analyzing the reply first and considered that a process of the ... erm, road repair, started in the past and might still be in process. As well as the changes happened with the road because of workers were temporary and thus I needed to write verbs in the Past Continuous. As for the verb "to warn", I thought that a process of warning was much shorter, and the stress was likely on what the workers were doing when the second action (someone's warning) "interrupted" the first one. As for the questing, I believed it was a some kind of policeman's explanation of what was ahaed on the road. Thus I used the Past Continuous. But now I'm thinking I am not correct and there could be the Past Simple use. I'm confused. Please help.

Hello Denys,

Generally we don't provide answers for tasks from other sources as we first have no way of guaranteeing the quality of the material and, second. try to be careful not to do our users' homework or tests for them! 

In this case I can tell you that the last two should be continuous and simple, respectively. The workers were doing roadworks (an unfinished activity in progress) and the road narrowed (a statement of fact rather than a process). The first two gaps are ambiguous and either form is possible. Without any further context it's not possible to say whether either is preferable.



The LearnEnglish Team

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


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.




The LearnEnglish Team


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


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.


The LearnEnglish Team