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 (192 votes)

Hello Cheremshina,

Please see Jonathan's response to Agness for an explanation of your first question.

As for 2, when we refer to a past time that has completely finished, we typically use past simple. Using the past simple in this way shows that we regard that past time as one long event that is completely finished.

I'd suggest you have a look at our Talking about the past page for more details and practice of this.

All the best,
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by pebe on Sat, 29/10/2022 - 18:40


Thanks for your reply, I was good to hear that I'm not crazy and something is wrong with this book.. and it's answer key. I've encountered another problem while doing exercises on the platform- it's a pity that I can't upload a screen. It goes like that:
I _________ (not use) my phone while we _____ (travel).
She _______ (speak) in a strange language, so ______ (be) able to understand her.

I completed it like this:

I wasn't using my phone while we were travelling.
She spoke in a strange language, so I wasn't able to understand her.

The platform marked my answers as incorrect. They suggest:
I didn't use my phone while we were travelling.
She was speaking in a strange language, so I wasn't able to understand her.

Are these really the only possible answers?! (No context given).
I promise this is my last question if it comes to these two tenses, I will simply deal with the fact that I can't fully trust it. :)

Hello pebe,

We generally don't comment on what other sites or authors produce as our role is to provide help for learners directly and not to review other people's work. I don't think any of the questions you've posted are appropriately constructed to illustrate or test the differences between the simple and continuous forms, which is really a red flag as regards the site you're using. Unfortunately, the Internet is full of such sites on all sorts of topics, which is why it's always safer to use sites backed by a reputable organisation such as the British Council.

As an aside, past continuous is not a different tense to past simple. The tense is past; the aspect is continuous. Tense refers to an action's location in time; aspect refers to how we see it in time, such as whether it is repeated, complete, temporary etc.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by pebe on Sat, 22/10/2022 - 05:38


Hi! There is a sentence in my book which goes:
I ........... (play) hockey and afterwards I came home and ....... (have) some food.

I need to complete it with past simple or past continuous. I'd use past simple in both gaps but the key says that in the first gap past continuous is the only possible answer. Why oh why? There is no context just this sentence.

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