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
Read the explanation to learn more.
The past continuous and the past simple help us to show how two past actions or situations are connected.
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?
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
If you say They closed the shop when I got there (past simple + "when" + past simple), the time is not correct. It does not mean that the two actions happened at the same time. It means that "They closed the shop" happened a very short time after the "when" action. In other words: "first I got there, and then they closed the shop". So, the word "already" does not make sense here, because it means that closing the shop happened first.
If the meaning is that they closed the shop first, i.e., before I got there, it should be in the past perfect: They had already closed the shop ... . For more information about this, have a look at our Past perfect page.
They were already closing the shop when I got there means that when I got there, they were in the middle of doing that action. For example, I arrived at 6 pm but they had started closing the shop a few minutes earlier, and they were still doing it at 6 pm when I arrived. The action of closing the shop did not happen in a moment. Instead, it lasted some time (e.g. a few minutes), and it was ongoing at the moment I arrived.
Does that make sense?
Hi! I would like to ask why do we say: "They lived in Germany when they were young" and not (for example) "The were living in Germany when they were young?" Thank you!
Hi Elena SP,
This is a question of context and speaker's intention or view because both forms are grammatically possible.
They lived in Germany when they were young tells us that Germany was their home; it was a permanent (as far as they knew) place for them.
They were living in Germany when they were young tells us that Germany was always seen as a temporary location; even if they stayed for a long time it was never really considered a permanent location for them.
This sense of an action being temporary is one of the core meanings of the continuous aspect. It's often subjective and dependent on how the speaker sees a particular situation rather than any objective fact.
The LearnEnglish Team
Could you please clarify the following:
As far as I understand, if there is a certain event in the past which is not continuous by default both Past Simple and Past Continuous could be used. Is that correct? For example, are all of these sentences sound correct:
1. I was getting out of a car yesterday at 8 p. m.
2. I got out of a car yesterday at 9 p. m.
3. I was going to bed last Sunday at 10 p. m.
4. I went to bed last Sunday at 10 p. m.
As far as I understand, both getting out of a car and "commute" to bed before sleep take up to one minute.
I'm very very grateful for your precious contribution to my English knowledge (and you are doing this for many people) and thank you for answering this question beforehand!!!
It's true that some actions take longer or shorter and this might make using the past continuous or past simple with them more or less common, but I'm afraid it's not so simple. Whether we use one form or the other usually has more to do with the situation than how the action takes.
Whether these sentences are correct or not depends on the situation they were being used in. In general, 2 and 4 are less context-dependent, that is, could be used in many different situations.
1 and 3 only work in more specific contexts. If the police were asking you where you were yesterday at 8pm or Sunday at 10pm, then those sentences would be correct. Or if you went on to talk about something else that happened at that time (e.g. 'when the phone rang'), they would also be correct. But if you were just saying what time you got out of the car or went to bed, the past simple would be the correct verb form (not the past continuous).
Hope this helps.
All the best,
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?
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,
It does help.
Many many thanks for your time and explanations!!! I appreciate it a lot!
Hello, which is correct:
I played tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday.
or I was playing tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday.
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:
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