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

Language level

Beginner: A1
Pre-intermediate: A2

Soumis par Kirk le mer 07/10/2020 - 06:40

En réponse à par lv_2020

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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

Soumis par nadaqattan le sam 03/10/2020 - 17:22

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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

Hi Nada,

Yes, that's perfectly fine. You can use the simple form after while and in some contexts it is more common.

It may be helpful to contrast two versions of your sentence:

He was enjoying himself while the FBI searched for him.

This could suggest that the search happened during the dtime he was having fun. It's not entirely clear, and the context would be important.

He enjoyed himself while the FBI was searching for him.

Here, the enjoyment happens within the time of the search.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par dnna le lun 14/09/2020 - 23:26

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Hello sir, there is a sentence in my textbook: "Frank was constantly asking for money last year when he WAS still out of work", our English teacher ask us why they use WAS but not WAS BEING. I am stuck with this. Could you please tell me? Thank you.

Hello dnna,

The verb 'be' is a stative verb and is very rarely used in the continuous, so the present simple is used here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Aymen Aouali le jeu 03/09/2020 - 23:17

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I was not know that we can use tow past continuous verbs in the same sentences.

Soumis par fadi.kazan le mer 02/09/2020 - 09:30

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Hi, The last time I saw her, she ( was driving - drove ) a red car. What is the correct answer?

Soumis par Kirk le mer 02/09/2020 - 13:28

En réponse à par fadi.kazan

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Hello fadi.kazan,

In most situations, 'was driving' would be the correct form here. The idea is that if we saw her behind the wheel, she was probably in the process of driving at that point, and so the continuous form is the appropriate one.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Linhhh le dim 30/08/2020 - 09:31

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What's wrong with saying "they already closed the shop when I got there"? I don't see anything wrong with the grammar.

Hello Linhhh,

The times that 'already' and 'when I got there' refer to are incongruous. 'already' implies that they closed the shop before you got there, and so then it's strange to say 'when I got there', which says the closing and your arrival happened at the same time.

You could say 'They had already closed the shop when I got there' (or 'The shop was closed when I got there') or 'They closed the shop when I got there', though note these mean slightly different things.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Sir, i want to ask a question. Is it possible for me to say "They closed the shop when i got there."?

Soumis par Arcasso le ven 14/08/2020 - 10:36

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Hello Sir. I have a problem. In many student's books in my country is written that after "when" is always Past Simple !!! However I've seen a lot of examples that it's not - "I broke my leg when I was skiing." What do you think? My next question - can we say: When I broke my leg, I was skiing. or When I was skiing, I broke my leg. Thanks for your answer.

Hi Arcasso,

Yes! After when we can use various tenses, not just past simple. I'm not sure why those books suggest only using past simple, but other tenses are definitely possible.

About your other question, yes – both versions are fine. But there is a difference in their focus. When introduces a background action. So, if you say When I broke my leg, I was skiing, breaking my leg is the background, and skiing is the focus (i.e. the speaker's main topic). The speaker would probably continue talking about skiing (not breaking my leg). If you say When I was skiing, I broke my leg, breaking my leg is the focus.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par manu le lun 03/08/2020 - 01:13

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1) Mr. Peter had two sons. Does this mean Mr. Peter is alive and he lost his two sons (or) Mr. Peter is dead and is survived by two sons. 2) If Peter has 5 siblings and 3 of them passed away. should it be a) Peter has 5 siblings and only 2 of them alive, or b) Peter had 5 siblings and only 2 of them alive.

Hello manu,

Your first example really depends on the context. All we can say from the sentence is that the man no longer has two sons. He may be dead or his sons may be dead; we do not know.

 

In your second example, had is the normal choice. When a person has died we generally no longer speak of them with present tenses. Thus, a person might say that they had a child (if the child is dead), or that they were married (if they are now divorced or widowed).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par VegitoBlue le dim 19/07/2020 - 09:42

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Hi, Concerning the usage of both tenses together, quoting from the article above: "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. Example - While I was studying, I suddenly felt sleepy. We often use these tenses to show an action interrupting another action. Example - I broke my leg when I was skiing." Does this mean that the simple past action must occur exactly at the midpoint of the longer action expressed by present continuous (for example (let's say the skiing occurred from 10 to 11 AM, and the breaking of leg occurred exactly at 10:55AM), can I still say "I broke my leg when I was skiing"? of is it a case where "I broke my leg when I was skiing" only applies if the "skiing occurred from 10 to 11 AM, and the breaking of leg occurred exactly at 10:30AM - midpoint of the action of skiing"? Also, other than a simple past action interrupting the past continuous, can a timing, instead of an action in the simple past, also interrupt the past continuous action, e.g. "Last night at 8pm, I was studying" - to mean that I started studying before 8 p.m. and I continued after 8 p.m? Also, if timing serves as the interruption instead of a simple past action, must the timing be the exact mid point of the interrupted action?

Soumis par Kirk le dim 19/07/2020 - 15:22

En réponse à par VegitoBlue

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Hello VegitoBlue,

The past simple action takes place at any time during the past continuous action, not at the exact midpoint.

You are also right in thinking that another time reference that is not the past simple can 'interrupt' the past continuous action. It doesn't have to be at the exact midpoint -- it can be at any time during that period of time.

One of the possible meanings of the continuous aspect is that of duration in time, so you can refer to a point or even period of time within that using some kind of time reference, which includes phrases such as 'at 8pm' or 'When she arrived' (and many others).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk, you mentioned that "One of the possible meanings of the continuous aspect is that of duration in time, so you can refer to a point or even period of time within that using some kind of time reference" - I'm afraid I don't quite get what you mean. Could you kindly explain further? Also, by point in time, are you referring to time references such as "I was studying at 8pm (point in time being 'at 8pm' which interrupts the past continuous action of 'I was studying')" or "I was bathing when she arrived (point in time being 'when she arrived' which interrupts the past continuous action of 'I was bathing')" ? Lastly, could you cite examples involving "period of time"? Thank you.

Hello VegitoBlue,

An example of a point in time would be 'at 8pm', as in the example you gave, though I wouldn't say that 'at 8pm' 'interrupts' 'I was studying'. The way I'd recommend thinking of it is that a continuous action was occurring, and 'at 8pm' refers to one point during that period. Your analysis of the sentence about bathing looks good to me.

Note that 'a point in time' can be many different things. For example, in a text about financial markets in the early 21st century, a sentence like 'Stock prices dropped precipitously in 2008' uses 'in 2008' as a point of time. But 'in 2008' can also be a period of time -- in a sentence such as 'He started five different jobs in 2008', for example, 'in 2008' refers to the course of a year. 

The other parts of a text and especially the verb forms tell you whether 'in 2008' refers to a point in time or a period of time.

In a sentence like 'In the early 1990s, I was studying medicine in Birmingham', there is a reference to a larger period of time ('in the early 1990s') and another shorter period of time within it ('I was studying medicine').

Hope this clear it all up for you.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Lal le mar 19/05/2020 - 14:28

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Hello Sir A. Is that fresh bread I smell ?. B. Yes, your mother has been baking all morning. Referring to 'B' can't we say " had been baking all morning" Please let me know Thank you. Regards Lal

Hello Lal,

Since there is a present result (the smell), the present perfect is most appropriate here. Although the context is limited, the past perfect does not make sense in the sentence as it stands.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Elaine20 le sam 02/05/2020 - 06:33

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Hi the learnEngish team, In the Grammar test 2, Q5, could you explain why the answer is "were already closing" ? I thought the answer is "already closed", because of the shop is closed, they didn't buy anything. Does it make sense?

Hi Elaine20,

It is possible to use a past form in this sentence, but we would use a past perfect:

...they had already closed...

The past simple does not work with 'already' in this context. You could make the sentence without 'already' (...they closed the shop when I arrived), but that would have a strange meaning. It would suggest that they waited until you arrived and then closed the shop because they didn't like you for some reason!

Out of the two answers possible, were already closing is the correct answer. It tells us that they were already in the process of closing the shop - clearing out the last customers, emptying the tills, turning off the lights etc - when you arrived, so you couldn't buy anything.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Reza le mar 28/04/2020 - 14:17

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Hi, Could please tell me which sentence (s) is correct: 1- We were playing football between 4 and 5 pm yesterday. 2- We played football between 4 and 5 pm yesterday. 3- We were playing football for an hour yesterday. 4- We played football for an hour yesterday. Thanks

Soumis par Kirk le mar 28/04/2020 - 14:30

En réponse à par Reza

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Hello Reza

They could all be correct in specific contexts, though 3 is a bit strange.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Jo Ann le mar 28/04/2020 - 11:35

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Hello there, Can one also come across a Past simple tense question that has to be changed into Present Simple tense. But than nothing needs to be changed cause it's written the same in both present and past simple tense.

Hello Jo Ann

A question in the past simple would use 'did' and a question in the present simple would use 'does' or 'do'. This is what makes the time clear.

Does that make sense?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par itspb008 le dim 05/04/2020 - 16:11

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What _____ at around 8 a.m. this morning? in this question how do I know that option (2) is correct and options (1) is incorrect. I can't understand the question I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there. Same situation as above Please clear the doubt.

Hello itspb008

In the first case, 'at around 8 a.m.' indicates that the question is about an action that was in progress, so the continuous form is the correct one.

In the second case, the continuous form refers to an action that was in progress at the time you arrived at the shop. The past simple with 'already' doesn't make sense here, because it implies that the shop had been closed before you arrived.

Hope this helps.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Monty le ven 03/04/2020 - 22:54

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Hello there, I'd appreciate some input on the difference between: Last night I watched TV from 8 pm to 10 pm. (past simple) versus Last night I was watching TV from 8 pm to 10 pm. (past continuous) Thanks in advance.

Hello Monty,

It's hard to comment without knowing the context. Generally, the simple form sees the action as a single event, while the continuous form sees it as an ongoing process or activity. The simple form is more likely if you are talking about your 'achievements' last night, while the continous form is more likely if the action was interrupted or you need to emphasise the work you did (answering the question Why are your eyes so red?, for example).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par KHiri Abdulnasser le ven 20/03/2020 - 14:01

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Helpful comments and amazing answers from the educator. thank you Kirk.

Hello KHiri Abdulnasser

Thanks very much for your message! We're very happy to be able to help our users with questions about what's on our website.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par Goutam Paul le jeu 05/03/2020 - 16:29

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Having uses of was/ware in any other places in grammar? It's make confused me.

Hello Goutam Paul

'was' and 'were' are extremely common verb forms. They are nearly always a past simple form of the verb 'be' or used in the past continuous, but there are other related uses (for example, as the past form of 'there is' and 'there are'). I'd recommend that you take the time to learn them well because you will probably see them a lot!

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par wcyam10 le lun 02/03/2020 - 07:05

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1)This time last year I _____ at university. Why is it incorrect if i use " studied" instead of " was studying"? 2) At 6 p.m. yesterday it _____ dark. Why "was already getting" is correct but not " already got"? 3) I saw you driving down Green Street yesterday! Where _____? Why "were you going" is the answer instead of "did you go"? Thnk you.

Hello wycam10

'this time' (in 1) implies a period of time, which implies an action in progress, which is why the past simple form is not correct here.

In 2, you could say 'had already got' or 'was already getting' or 'got'; which is correct depends on the context and/or what you want to say. 'already' implies a change that had already happened or that was in progress.

In 3, the previous sentence already establishes an action in progress ('driving down') and so in most contexts it would make sense to continue with the idea of an action in progress.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Soumis par nataliaoey2912 le jeu 13/02/2020 - 05:33

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Hi, I want to ask for "I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there." Why the anwer 'is we were already closing' ? 'close' is not activties need process. Is it suppose to be 'have already closed the shop'? and please help me, what do you think the best answer for this: "______ yesterday?" "No, it was a nice day." Is the anwer "did it rain" or "was it raining"? and why? Thank you very much.

Soumis par Kirk le jeu 13/02/2020 - 06:57

En réponse à par nataliaoey2912

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Hello nataliaoey2912

Re: Grammar test 2 sentence 5, you could indeed also say 'They had already closed the shop when I got there' (using the past perfect) if the shop was indeed closed when you arrived. It's also possible to say 'The shop was already closed' to mean the same thing (though in this case, 'closed' is an adjective). 'They already closed the shop' sounds strange because 'already' refers to a time before you arrived, and when we refer to an earlier time like this, we use the past perfect to show that it was earlier.

'They closed the shop just as I got there' is also possible if they closed and locked the door just as you arrived, that is, in that exact moment. 

'They were closing the shop' (the correct answer in this exercise) is grammatically correct. 'close a shop' doesn't refer to just closing and locking the door, it also refers to all of the things you do before you close it (e.g., make sure all the customers are out, turn off the lights, take the cash to deposit it in the bank, etc.), which is indeed a process that can take some time.

As for the other gap you ask about, 'Did it rain' is the correct answer because the response 'No, it was a nice day' wouldn't be appropriate for 'Was it raining'. The past simple refers to the whole day, which is what the response 'It was a nice day' also refers to. The past continuous form ('Was it raining yesterday?') could be correct in a specific context, but since there is no specific context here, the other answer is the best one.

That's quite a long answer! But I hope it helps you make sense of things. If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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