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

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Hello nunu22,

Continue is not a stative verb but it can describe situations as well as actions. When we use it in a context like the weather we generally use the simple form. The progressive form is generally used for activities where there is some conscious decision to not stop. For example:

She is continuing to work on the problem.

We are continuing to monitor the situation.


Your second example is a narrative where the speaker is describing events as he or she sees them. You could use simple forms here (it overtook... it came...) but this would describe a sequence as if the person speaking is watching with some detachment, whereas the progressive forms give a sense of the speaker describing events as they happen, making it much more dramatic and engaging.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Agness on Sun, 31/07/2022 - 17:58


Hello teacher
I want to ask why in this sentence can't conjugate simple past tense
They _already closed____ the shop when I got there, so I couldn't go in and buy anything.
For this question, why can't we use the past continuous?
_Were you finding____ what you were looking for in the library yesterday?

Hi Agness,

About sentence 1, if the meaning is that they closed the shop before I got there, it should be in the past perfect ("They had already closed the shop ..."), not the past simple. That's because the first action (closing the shop) happened before the second action ("I got there"), and it affected the second action (i.e., I couldn't buy anything, which was the reason why I went there). For more information about this, have a look at our past perfect page.

About sentence 2, the meaning of "find" is "to discover something/someone" (see Cambridge Dictionary) - that is, to finally know where something/someone is. "Find" and "discover" happen at the end of searching. For example, if I have lost my phone, I look for it for some time (= I don't know where it is), and then I find it (= now I know where it is). 

In the question, if you use past continuous ("were you finding"), that means it happened at the same time as the other past continuous action ("you were looking for"). But "finding" happens at the end of "looking for", not at the same time, so it should be the past simple.

I hope that helps.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Claire Rabbit on Sat, 30/07/2022 - 13:56


Could you please tell me this answer,Thank you!
In this sentence,”We were watching television when the power went off.” What does mean?
If “When” was before “We were watching TV”, I knew that means power off happened in the
middle of watching TV.

Hi BetterAdam,

That's right, the power cut happened in the middle of watching TV. We know that "We were watching TV" started before the power cut because of the verb tense (past continuous). 


The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Dear
Thank you!
Actually I want to know the different if "when" is front of "We were watching TV"?
Will the kind of the sentence meaning change?

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)

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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.