Past continuous and past simple

Do you know how to use the past continuous and past simple?

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

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Hello! I have a doubt about this sentence: " I didn't buy anything. They were already closing the shop when I got there." Is it related to any grammar rules on this page. Cuz, I don't know what is the meaning of the past continuous in this sentence want to show about?

Hello Mike210801,

The idea is that when you arrived at the store, the people who work there were in the process of closing it and so you couldn't go in. In this situation, you could say 'had already closed' or 'were closing'.

We've changed the sentence a little bit to try to make this clearer.

Sorry for any confusion!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi, May the both sentences be same. I was trying to answer his questions. he shouted at me. He shouted at me while I was trying to answer his question. I would also like to know if there is a rule for the word order. means which tense is comes firs. past or past continues? Thanks

Hi Maahir,

You can change the order of the clauses - there is no rule about which must come first. However, we need a conjunction to join them. In your second sentence you have a conjunction (while). In your first sentence you also need one:

I was trying to answer his questions when he shouted at me.

He shouted at me while I was trying to answer his question.

Generally, we use while before past continuous and when before past simple in these kinds of sentences.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

I struggle with one sentence: I first met Sandra 10 years ago. We studied/were studying at the same university. I don't know which one is correct.

Hello Iwona,

Both sentences are possible, but I think the context suggests that 'were studying' is the better option as the meeting occurred at some point during your time studying there. If you use 'studied' then the two events (studying and meeting) are not connected. In this case, you may have met Sandra and only later discovered that you had a university in common, for example.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sumair,

That's certainly a tendency, but it's not a fixed rule.

 

As a time marker, while emphasises that one action occurred during or at the same time as another. When can also mean this, but it can also mean that one thing triggered (caused or started) another event, so context is important.

 

For example:

1. While (When) Sue was leaving, the phone rang.

2. When Sue left, the phone rang.

In the first sentence, both when and while are possible but while is more likely as it emphasises that one action (the phone ringing) occurred during another (Sue leaving) which had not finished.

In the second sentence, only when is possible as the actions are sequential: first Sue leaves and only then does the phone ring.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi everyone, thanks for making clear and interesting website. I have one question. As you said, 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. I cannot understand "In the second sentence, the guests arrived first and then Jane started cooking." Why does this sentence mean "Jane started cooking", not "already finished cooking before the guests arrived" ? I especially want to know why native speakers recognise this as "started cooking" Thank you very much for your help.

Hello Suguru,

The past simple is used for sequential actions so, unless there is some other indication, when we have more than one action described with the past simple we assume that they form a sequence.

In this example we have two actions in the past simple and so we assume one precedes the other. The use of 'when' suggests that the second action was prompted by the first.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

We were cleaning the house all morning. Can I use "We cleaned the house this morning" ? What's the difference?

Hello moniMee,

The continuous form (were cleaning) emphasises the ongoing nature of the activity while the simple form (cleaned) emphasises the action as a completed whole. Which you use depends upon the context and the speaker's intention or focus, neither of which we have here as your sentence is presented in isolation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

"I broke my leg when I was skiing." Before yet I thought, 'while' goes with past continuous and 'when' with past tense. But that sentence proved me wrong and confused.....

Hello DennisT,

While is certainly more common with the past continuous, but it is also possible to use when without changing the meaning. However, it is not possible to use while before the clause with the simple verb:

He arrived while I was washing my car = correct

He arrived when I was washing my car = correct

I was washing my car when he arrived = correct

I was washing my car while he arrived = incorrect

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

thank you.. my big problem in english is the grammar. specialy te tenses . i can understand when i read or when some one speak to me .. but i can't reply correctly or write a text without mistakes.. and i know that i have a lof of mistakes in my comment.. keep going. thank you
the teacher can help me? the question '' I didn't buy anything. They ... the shop when I got there. I think the answer '' already closed'' is still correct. as you said before it's unusual using the continuous tense with already so that's why the answer to this question is '' were already closing''.

Hello Loc Duc,

I'm afraid that 'already closed' is not correct here. I explained this to Kaisoo93 in a comment on 28 November, which you can see just below.

Please have a look and then if you have any other questions, feel free to let us know.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi teachers, I read above "What were you doing at 8 p.m. last night?" Can we say the following? 1 What were you doing last night/ last week / yesterday? 2 As I was sleeping last night, I heard a noise. *Can we use time expressions such as last night/ last week /yesterday with the past continuous (not only with the simple past)? Could you explain, please? Thanks in advance.

Hello ZIZO,

Yes, sentence 1 works with any of those time expressions and sentence 2 is also correct.

Yes, you can use those time expressions with the past continuous as well as the past simple.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Teachers, In grammar test2 "I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there." Is it possible to fill "had been closing"? Similarly, "When we arrived at the restaurant he ________ his meal already." Are both "had started eating" and "had been eating" correct? (he was still eating when we arrived) Thank you

Hello Kaisoo93,

No, I'm afraid not. These grammar tests were written so that there is only one correct answer.

In the first case, the idea is that the shop was already closed when you arrived. If it was in the process of being closed, we'd say 'were closing', not 'had been closing' and the previous sentence would probably be something more like 'I wasn't able to get in the shop'.

In the second case, it's unusual to use a continuous tense with 'already'. The action of beginning something like eating a meal only takes a moment.

Hope that helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi teacher, I am quite confused about some differences between these two grammars. For example, I was working all day and I worked all day. Do they mean the same?

Hi Woo2020,

Both of these forms describe actions in the past, but there is a difference in emphasis.

We use the simple form (worked) when we are thinking of the action as a completed whole, while we use the continuous (was working) when we are thinking of the activity as a process, particularly as the background to some other action or event, such as an event which interrupts the working before it ends (i.e. happens in the middle of it).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hey everyone, ı have a question about grammar test2 "I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there." why did we chose to " already closed" option? ı think ıt should be "were already closing" can someone explain?

Hello diidem,

'were already closing' is the correct answer for that sentence. If you press the 'Check answers' button (which becomes 'Show answers' after you press it), it should show that it is the correct answer. I've just checked and that's what it shows when I do it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

i request from team leader could explain me the difference of past continuous tense or past progressive tense?

Hello Shamsia Shams,

Those are two different names for the same form. Here on LearnEnglish, we use the name 'past continuous'.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

She and I were packing the boxes just 8 weeks ago. Is it correct? If yes, then is it because the word “just” indicates more specific period of time in the past?

Hello Kamwengv,

Yes, that sentence is grammatically correct -- it refers to an action in progress in the past. You could also say 'She and I packed the boxes just 8 weeks ago' and it is also correct. The difference is that the first one portrays the action as an action in progress and the second portrays it as a finished action.

The second one is probably more common, but it really depends on the situation the sentence is found in.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again Kamwengv,

No, the verb could still be 'were packing'. If I were describing what my sister and I were spending a lot of time doing together eight weeks ago, then 'She and I were packing the boxes eight weeks ago' would be an appropriate form, for example. In this sentence, I'm kind of imagining all the different moments I spent with my sister at that time, and in many of them, we were packing boxes -- maybe, for example, she was moving house and needed my help.

If I said 'We packed the boxes', that would also be correct, but it wouldn't focus on the time we spent together as much.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

It’s hard to imagine when there is a specific “past” time like 8 weeks ago, yesterday, last night! It’s clear to indicate the past time but you try to use different scenarios to advance “on progress” in the past. It sounds to violate the simple past tense concept!

Hello Kamwengv,

The idea of something being 'in progress' is that it began before and was interrupted by another event before it was completed. For example:

I read a magazine. John arrived.

These are three sequential events which happen one after the other.

I was reading a book. John arrived.

Here, I was in the middle of reading the magazine when John arrived; his arrival interrupted my reading, which was not finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

How come it happened for the above example Three years ago, we were living in our home town. There is a specific time mentioned. It should be a simple past tense rather than past continuous tense. Please advise!
1-He (studied / was studying) from 5 to 8 2-he (worked / was working) all day yesterday *if we removed *yesterday * would it be the same? 3-he (walked / was walking) for two hours 4-he (worked / was working) all + night or any period of time. 5- the baby (slept / was sleeping) peacefully through the night. I know that the PP Usually gets interrupted by another action,and we need more context to decide,but what about these sentences can we use both or just one over another ?

Hello Turki123456,

In 1, 2, 3 and 4 both forms are possible -- as you suggest, one or the other would be better depending on the meaning or context. Without the word 'yesterday', both forms are also possible in 2.

In 5, I'd say 'was sleeping' would not be correct because 'through the night' implies that the period is already over and I can't imagine a situation in which the form would make sense. Perhaps there is some context when it could work, but I can't think of one off the top of my head!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Another question sir. When we use time clauses (until,after,before,as soon as),we only use past simple and not past progressive? (Examples): 1-before I went to bed,I finished my homework 2-i went to bed after I finished my home work 3-i stayed up until I finished my homework 4-yesterday i slept until 9pm.it felt amazing (can’t we say here i was sleeping or because we have *until* and it must be past simple. Thank you in advance sir.

Hello Turki123456,

If you mean the verb inside the time clauses, that sounds like a good general rule, especially with 'before' and 'until', but I don't think it's always true. For example, 'Before I was brushing my teeth, I was talking on the phone'. That's a rather unusual sentence, but it's grammatically possible.

Remember also that there are many other tenses that are possible in such time clauses (e.g. present simple, present perfect, past perfect).

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello!! I have one doubt when using the simple past and past continuous when is doesn't mean an action interrupting the other. In the sentence: When I _________ (finish) the book, I ______ (cry), can I use both? 1) When I was finishing the book, I cried; 2) When I finished the book, I was crying. I think both are correct, but their meaning are slighty different, is this analysis right? Same for: I ________(study) when my mother __________ (cook) dinner. Could I use: 1) I was studying when my mother cooked dinner or 2) I studied when my mother was cooking dinner? thks

Hello Iv_2020,

Yes, you're right in thinking that the meaning is different. In fact, there are two more possible forms:

3) finished, cried
4) was finishing, was crying

Strictly speaking, all four of them are possible, but 1 would be unusual because it suggests that you cried for a brief time while you were finishing the book but had stopped crying when you finished. 

The most common combination here is 3, which suggests that you finished the book and then started to cry (and cried for a little bit).

For the other set of sentences, again, different forms are possible and the best one depends on what you mean.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hiii. This is Nada. I have a question about using "while". One of the textbooks I'm teaching now says that the simple past can be used with while like: "He was enjoying himself while the FBI searched for him." Is this sentence correct? Many Thanks