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 (177 votes)

Submitted by quydohmu on Wed, 03/05/2023 - 08:41


A-Oh. - What's going on with you?
B- I got no sleep last night. A-Why?
B- My grandmother has this new boyfriend...
...and they're both kind of insecure in bed, so...
And deaf.
So they're constantly having to reassure each other that they're having a good time.
why does character B use present continuous to tell a story that happened in the past, instead of past simple?

Submitted by sohrab kakozada on Thu, 30/03/2023 - 12:06


Hello, Kirk!
Could you please also help me with the following:
While it was raining, I saw you.
It was raining when I saw you.
When I saw you, It was raining.
I saw you While it was raining.
what is the difference between these sentences?

Hello sohrab,

There aren't any significant differences between 'when' and 'while' in these sentences.

The order of the clauses can be used to emphasise one clause or the other -- that is, whether what's important is that it was raining or that you saw me -- but without knowing more about the situation or your purpose for saying these, I'm afraid it's hard to say for sure why the speaker would use on order of the other.  

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Hello Kirk!
I have a doubt, a practice book considers the following sentence to be wrong:
"Nick *was lying* down on the grass for a while, next to some tourists who *fed* the ducks."
And this one is correct:
"Nick *lay* down on the grass for a while, next to some tourists who *were feeding* the ducks."
The differences are the tenses of the two verbs in both sentences.
But I cannot see why the wrong one is wrong... I've already checked the theory in several sources

Hello cuntur,

Generally, the past continuous describes an event which provides a background against which another, more important event occurs. Presumably, Nick is the hero of our little story and we are more interested in his action than that of the tourists. That would imply that the act of feeding the ducks is the background for the main action, and we do not have any information (or interest) in how long the feeding continued. In such a context the past continuous is appropriate.



The LearnEnglish Team 

Oh!! Excellent and thank you very much for your time and answer. Now I see the point.
PD: This was my first message posted on a forum. I didn't see your reply at first. And I sent the question again in another place or way I guess. Sorry! Anyway it is concluded, thanks.

Submitted by AboodKh9 on Tue, 28/02/2023 - 11:35


Hello everyone! I just want to ask if this sentence is correct:

The situation here is:
At the airport I started checking in. Then my friend started waiting for me until I finished.

So I expressed about what happened by this sentence:

My friend waited while I was checking in.

As I know the past simple happens and finishes during the past continuous. In the sentence above the past simple happened during the past continuous but finished with it. And maybe my friend waited for me even after I finished checking in...

So I am confused about this because I saw this example in my book!

Please help me clarify this

Hi AboodKh9,

The past simple does not specify when the action ends. The action may end during the past continuous action, for example:

  • My friend waited while I was checking in but he left before I'd finished.

Or it may end at the same time as the past continuous action.

  • My friend waited the whole time while I was checking in.

This may not be an important difference. If it is important, it would be best to add a phrase to clarify the intended meaning (e.g. "but he left ..." and "the whole time" in the examples above).

I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team