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 howtosay_,

The sentence doesn't explicitly say anything about whether he was humming a tune after he finished drying the dishes. It just focuses on the fact that he was humming during the action of drying the dishes.

  1. 'He was humming as he dried the dishes.'
  2. 'He was humming as he was drying the dishes.'

'as' refers to the the activity of drying the dishes. The difference between 1 and 2 is subtle and is more of a difference of perspective. In 1, the action of drying the dishes is regarded more as a unit or chunk of time. In 2, it is seen more in action, as something happening in the moment.

It's difficult to describe this difference, but I hope that helps.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Good job Peter!!, I recommend this page to learn English, without a doubt it is the best of all. I have learned everything I know about English thanks to Peter, thanks Peter

Submitted by nganguyen27 on Thu, 30/11/2023 - 02:22

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Hi, could you please tell me which one is the correct sentence, "I heard a heavy footstep on the stairs when I closed my book at 9.30 p.m" or " I heard a heavy footstep on the stairs when I was closing my book at 9.30 p.m" and give me an explanation?

Hello nganguyen27,

Both of these can be correct, but generally speaking the second one is probably better. The past simple action ('I heard') happened in the middle of the past continuous action while it was in progress ('I was closing').

But if we think of the two actions (hearing the footstep and closing the book) as actions that happened at the same time and we think of closing the book as a quick action -- that is, one that is so short that it's the same length of time as hearing the footstep -- then using past simple in both verbs is fine.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by a1981z on Fri, 17/11/2023 - 16:07

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While I finished one story, I was planning a new one.
While I was finishing one story, I was planning a new one.
While I finished one story, I planned a new one.

Are these sentences correct?

Hello a1981z,

Yes, all of those are possible sentences. The differences here are nuanced and more about emphasis (action vs activity) than anything else.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Rima-Akid on Wed, 15/11/2023 - 02:37

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Hello dear teachers,
Could you please help me find out the best form of question with “yesterday evening”:
What did you do yesterday evening?
Or what were you doing yesterday evening?
Thanks so much for sharing your answer.

Hello Rima-Akid,

In general, the first one (with past simple) is more common because most of the time when we refer to yesterday evening, we're talking about a finished past time. You might use this form when talking with friends, for example. 

Both the other sentence is also possible in specific situations. For example, if the police were investigating a crime that occurred last night and suspected you, they could ask you the question with the past continuous. It focuses more on what activities you were doing than on the fact that they are finished now.

Does that make sense?

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team