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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Soumis par mariancs le mar 30/11/2021 - 18:32

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Hi, great information :) I just have a doubt in this sentence:

I was eating grapes when she arrived.

(This is necessary to be interrupted action? Or could be parallel action? Because I think is not clear if the person who was eating stopped or continue...)

And what happens if I switch the sentence in this form:

She arrived when I was eating grapes.

This would be again interrupted or parallel? And in expressions with while, can we change the word while with when? Like this:

Sam was singing when Tom was studying.

Thank you, greetings to all the team!

Hello mariancs,

While it's true that we often explain sentences such as this one as examples of one action (past simple) interrupting another action (past continuous), this can be misleading if taken literally. The main point is that one action was in progress (past continuous) and another action occurs with the first one or for some period of time during the first one.

So in your first example, it doesn't necessarily mean that I stopped eating grapes. I was eating them before she arrived, could still be eating them when she arrived, and continued eating them after she arrived.

If you switch around the clauses, there's no real change in meaning, though there could be a change of emphasis. It's difficult to explain without a specific context and/or knowing exactly what the speaker means to say.

'while' and 'when' can often be interchanged, but again it really depends on the situation. In general, though, 'while' more clearly expresses a duration or something in progress, so often it's used for that reason.

Hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par isidro1255 le mar 16/11/2021 - 05:53

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I was studying when my dad called me for dinner

Soumis par Anara SN le sam 13/11/2021 - 20:25

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Hi there. Can I use past continuous to show two actions at the same time, but in different places? For example: While the kids were enjoying their summer holidays, parents had their own vacation time. (Kids and parents were in different countries, but all had summer vacations at the same week).

Soumis par Vanya le jeu 28/10/2021 - 12:47

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Hello . I have a question. What tense do you use for the sentence : I ___(leave) my book at home so I didn’t study in the cafe.

Hello Vanya,

There are a few different forms that could work here -- which one is best depends on the situation. Two forms that could work in different situations, though, are 'left' or 'had left'.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par eager2know le sam 23/10/2021 - 01:11

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Hello,
Can we use the following structures to show the same thing?
While she was cooking in the kitchen, Ben fell and hurt himself.
// When she was cooking in the kitchen, Ben fell and hurt himself.
Ben fell and hurt himself while/ when she was cooking in the kitchen.
Please reply. Thanks

Hello eager2know,

Yes, you can use either while or when in those examples.

Both 'when' and 'while' can be used when one action happens during another action, but 'when' can also have other uses, such as showing a sequence.

Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Mike210801 le dim 14/03/2021 - 14:10

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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

Soumis par Maahir le dim 14/03/2021 - 08:01

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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

Soumis par Peter M. le mar 16/03/2021 - 07:50

En réponse à par Maahir

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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

Soumis par Rafaela1 le dim 07/03/2021 - 13:00

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While I was watching telly, I suddenly felt sleepy.

Soumis par Iwona le sam 06/03/2021 - 12:38

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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

Soumis par Sumair le lun 01/02/2021 - 17:50

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May I say that "while" use for past continuous and "When" use for past tense?

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

Soumis par Suguru le sam 23/01/2021 - 13:16

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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

Soumis par moniMee le sam 16/01/2021 - 05:52

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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

Soumis par YolkLord42 le ven 15/01/2021 - 10:34

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I have one Question: Where can I found the irregular verbs?

Soumis par Rafaela1 le mer 06/01/2021 - 12:44

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The bird started eating on the tree while I was having a meal inside a house. ;)

Soumis par DennisT le mer 06/01/2021 - 07:15

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"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

Soumis par oussamach le ven 25/12/2020 - 22:55

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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

Soumis par Loc Duc le dim 20/12/2020 - 14:49

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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

Soumis par ZIZO le dim 13/12/2020 - 11:31

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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

Soumis par Kaisoo93 le sam 28/11/2020 - 13:45

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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

Soumis par Woo2020 le ven 20/11/2020 - 14:46

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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

Soumis par diidem le mer 18/11/2020 - 13:03

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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

Soumis par Shamsia Shams le mer 18/11/2020 - 09:54

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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

Soumis par Shamsia Shams le mer 18/11/2020 - 08:14

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i have joined newly to this course , the contends are interest to me.

Soumis par Kamwengv le mar 13/10/2020 - 08:43

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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

Thanks Kirk What if there is No “just” in this sentence?! Will it be Only a simple past tense, rite?