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)

Hello, Kirk!

Thank you so much for clarifiyng these important aspects!!!

Could you please also help me with the following:

Can we ask questions like "What were you doing at 8 p.m. last night?" and "I was cleaning my flat all the morning" within some particular context too? Can I ask my friend "What were you doing yesterday in the evening?" (without any previous context, just to know how they spent their time) or can I say "I was cleaning my flat for five hours" just to emphasize how long it took me?

Hello howtosay_,

In answer to your first question, yes, you could use those two sentences in an appropriate context. For example, when the police are interviewing people to find out where they were at the time of a crime, they could ask that first question and you could respond with that statement about cleaning.

It would be a bit odd to say 'What were you doing last night?' without any previous context. If you were just beginning a conversation or it's the first time you're talking about last night, a past simple would be the best form. Even if you had already explained what you did last night, it would be unusual to use a continuous form in the question to your friend. It would also be unusual for you to say 'I was cleaning' to just say what you did. 

You could say 'I was cleaning' when, for example, there's some other reference point in the course of the previous night. For example, if the president of your country appeared on television and radio with an important speech, then you could say 'When the president gave the speech, I was cleaning my flat. I didn't hear about what she said until later' or something like that.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Impresja on Wed, 04/01/2023 - 23:40


Hello, which is correct:

I played tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday.
or I was playing tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday.

Thank you

Hello Impresja,

Both are grammatically possible so the choice depends on the context. If you simply want to talk about what you did then the simple form (played) is the one to use. The continuous requires some other reference point. For example:

I didn't see your message because I was playing tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday. [a longer activity with another in the middle of it]

You look tired!   I am, I was playing tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday. [a visible or clear result of a past activity]


The use of aspect (here, the continuous aspect) is always context-specific. You need to think not just about the sentence but in which situation you might say it.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Risa warysha on Sat, 17/12/2022 - 07:06


Hi Team,
Is "He woke up early this morning" a verbal sentence?
Is "He was here last night" a nominal sentence?
If so, is there further explanation about the difference between nominal n verbal sentences?

Thank you so much for your answer

Hello Risa warysha,

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by 'verbal sentence' and 'nominal sentence'.

Verbal is a term used sometimes to describe words which are not verbs but which are similar in meaning or form to verbs. The examples in my Dictionary of Linguistics are as follows:

a verbal noun is a noun similar in meaning or form to a verb, e.g. 'smoking'; a verbal adjective is an adjective similar in form or meaning to a verb, e.g. 'interested'.

Nominal is similar: it describes words which have some of the attributes of nouns but not all.


Perhaps you could explain what you mean about the sentences rather than using labels. That might make it easier for me to follow your thinking.



The LearnEnglish Team

Are there no grammar terms for those sentences I gave? Are both sentences just called sentences?
And what is the example of nominal, sir?

Hello again Risa warysha,

The entry for nominal is as follows:

nominal (adj./n.) (nom, NOM) A term used in some grammatical descriptions as a substitute for noun (e.g. nominal group = ‘noun phrase’). In a more restricted sense, nominals refer to words which have some of the attributes of nouns but not all, e.g. the poor are many, where the head word of this phrase does not pluralize (*the poors). Nominalisation refers to the process of forming a noun from some other word-class (e.g. red + ness) or (in classical transformational grammar especially) the derivation of a noun phrase from an underlying clause (e.g. Her answering of the letter . . . from She answered the letter). An affix which does this is a nominalizer. The term is also used in the classification of relative clauses (e.g. What concerns me is her attitude). Some linguistic theories use the term in a more general sense, as in cognitive grammar, where ‘nominals’ (‘things’, chiefly noun phrases) are distinguished from relational expressions.

As you can see, it's not used in the way you did. To be honest, I don't really see anything special about these two sentences. What about them makes them different from each other, in your view? In other words, what features are you trying to name here? Both sentences have subjects, finite verbs and one or more adverbial phrases. I don't really see much difference between them.



The LearnEnglish Team


I thought nominal sentence is a sentence that has "be/ is/ am/ are/ was/ were" as a verb in it.
I think I got your explanation, sir.
Thank you very much