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: 4.1 (109 votes)
Do you need to improve your English grammar?
Join thousands of learners from around the world who are improving their English grammar with our online courses.

Hi pebe,

I agree with you, I would use past simple there. The past continuous is grammatically possible, but there is no apparent reason to use it here. Perhaps it is a mistake in the answer key?


The LearnEnglish Team

I am an English teacher. The most natural choices are: played & had.
Sadly, there are sometimes mistakes in materials.

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 09/09/2022 - 17:33


Hello. Could you please guide me to the correct answer in the following sentence? I think both are OK, right?
- I (spent - was spending) all my free time last Saturday tidying up my bedroom.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Yes, both are possible. Which is more appropriate will depend on the context and intention of the speaker.



The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 31/08/2022 - 09:17


Hello Team. Could you please help me choose the correct answer? Some teachers say that past simple is used to express repeated action in the past. However others say that Past continuous could also be used for the same purpose, right?
- I (was reading - read) at least one book a week, but now I don’t read so many.
Thank you.

Hi Ahmed Imam,

Yes, right - both past simple and continuous can express repeated actions.


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by nunu22 on Tue, 30/08/2022 - 20:50


I want to ask some sentences that I have doubt about
It .......continued rain while I ...was driving....home.
In This sentence I did not get why we did not use the progressive form of the verb continue
It .....was overtaking......... another van and.......... was coming ........
right at my car.
And in this sentence were these two instances happening at the same time? Would you explain these sentences please?
Thank you in advance

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?