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)
Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 17/06/2023 - 17:29


Hello Team. Could you help me decide on the correct tense in the following sentence? I think both of them are OK, right?
- I didn't answer the phone when it (rang - was ringing) because I was having a shower.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Yes, both as possible here. Generally, we use the simple to describe an action which is complete (finished) and which we see as a single thing, so I think the simple is best here. You might use the continuous if for some reason it was important to emphasise the ongoing nature of the ringing. For example, if someone was annoyed about the fact the phone was ringing all afternoon then you might use the past progressive (The phone was ringing all afternoon. It was so annoying!).



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by lien.t on Tue, 30/05/2023 - 09:21


Dear teachers,
Sorry if this questions is re-posted due to I have been logged out somehow.

I have a question about your practice, can you please clarify:
At 6 p.m. yesterday it _____ dark. ==> why I cannot use "already got"
They _____ the shop when I got there, so I couldn't go in and buy anything. ==> why I cannot use "already closed" ?

I understand the meanings if using the past continuous, but the past simple is still valid, isn't it?

thank you!

Hi lien.t,

No worries :)

The word "already" shows that the action happened before a particular moment. So if the meaning is that that it got dark before 6 pm, then it would need the past perfect to show that: At 6 p.m. yesterday it had already got dark. If you say "it already got dark" (past simple), it's not as clear what moment "already" refers to.

Similarly, in the second sentence, if the meaning is that they closed the shop first and then I got there too late, it should be in the past perfect: They had already the shop when I got there.

You can say They closed (past simple) the shop when I got there, which means that they either closed the shop at the same time I got there, or a moment after. But, these meanings don't make sense if you say "already", since that shows the action happened before that moment.

I hope that helps to understand it.


LearnEnglish team

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