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

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Profile picture for user Perúmarroninca

Submitted by Perúmarroninca on Mon, 11/03/2024 - 09:04

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Hi,
I didn't agrre with few answers from exercise above:
1) They __ the shop when I got there, so I couldn't go in/
Why it proposed me "were already closing" as a right answere?
Although this situation not in progress, it's just show the fact that the shop
was closed.
2) Sam __ basketball when he was at university
Why it proposed me to use simple time? I think that i should to use a continiouse, cos Sam did it during some period and it show a progress.
Isn't it?
I'll be thankful for your help

Hi Perúmarroninca,

1) Actually, that is the intended meaning: the action (closing the shop) was in progress at that moment (when I got to the shop). 

If the shop was already closed, i.e., it closed before I got to the shop, then the past perfect should be used (rather than the past simple) to show clearly that it was an anterior action: They had (already) closed the shop when I got there

2) Many actions happen over a period of time, but that is not a reason by itself to use past continuous. The past continuous is used when you emphasise the duration. So, you could say Sam was playing basketball when he was at university if you wanted to emphasise that he did this for a long time. Or, you could say Sam was playing basketball at 8 o'clock, to show an action in progress at a given moment. 

But, if you simply want to say what Sam did in a factual way, then Sam played basketball ... would be the usual way to say it. The duration is less important, so the simple form is used.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Profile picture for user masison terror 2

Submitted by masison terror 2 on Thu, 29/02/2024 - 16:14

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Hello,
I'm wondering if we can use "while" before the simple past tense. For example, "It was raining while she had the accident".
I was taught that when you want to combine the past continuous and the past simple, you should use "when" before the past simple and "while" before the past continuous.
Many thanks!

Hello masison terror 2,

It is possible to use while before past simple but usually not when the other action is past continuous. You can use two past simple verbs to show two completed actions:

Joe wrote some emails while I cooked dinner.

Here the implication is that the emails were written (completed) and dinner was cooked (completed)

You can also use two past continuous forms:

Joe was writing some emails while I was cooking dinner.

Here the implication is that the actions were in progress and unfinished (interrupted) from the point of view of the speaker. 

 

The only time I can think of when you might use a past continuous - while - past simple structure is when the continuous form describes a temporary state. For example:

I was living in London while she took her exams.

Here the implication is that my time in London was a temporary situation which was never intended to be permanent.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by howtosay_ on Fri, 08/12/2023 - 17:31

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Hello, dear teachers and team!

Could you please help me with the following:

1. I've seen the following sentence in the Cambridge Dictionary : "He was humming a tune as he dried the dishes", so I can't understand why it is "dried", not "was drying". As I understand, those two actions were happening at the same time.

2. Am I right in thinking that Past Simple shows a finished action? If so, does it mean that:

A. I was going to the supermarket yesterday - I was in the process of doing that, but it's not clear if I went there and bought (or didn't) something.

B. I went to the supermarket yesterday - I was at the supermarket.

C. I was seeing a film / reading a book yesterday - Maybe I didn't see a film or read a book to the end, maybe it was just a few minutes of film or a few pages of a book.

D. I saw a film / read a book yesterday - I saw a film / read a book to the end

I really appreciate your immense help and thank you very much indeed for the answer to this post in advance!!!

Hello howtosay_,

1. I've seen the following sentence in the Cambridge Dictionary : "He was humming a tune as he dried the dishes", so I can't understand why it is "dried", not "was drying". As I understand, those two actions were happening at the same time.

Both forms are possible here. 'Was drying' would imply that the process was not completed and was in progress or perhaps was interrupted.

 

2. Am I right in thinking that Past Simple shows a finished action? If so, does it mean that:

A. I was going to the supermarket yesterday - I was in the process of doing that, but it's not clear if I went there and bought (or didn't) something.

This is dependent on the context. It tells us that you began the journey and that presumably something happened during that process (you met someone, you got lost etc). It does not tell us whether or not you completed it later.

B. I went to the supermarket yesterday - I was at the supermarket.

Yes, that's right.

C. I was seeing a film / reading a book yesterday - Maybe I didn't see a film or read a book to the end, maybe it was just a few minutes of film or a few pages of a book.

As above with A, the context is required to be sure. All we can say is that you began the action and want to place something else in its context.

D. I saw a film / read a book yesterday - I saw a film / read a book to the end

Yes, that's right.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, Peter!

Thanks a lot for your answer, I do appreciate it!!!

May I also ask you to clarify the following:

So, the sentence "He was humming a tune as he dried the dishes" implies that he was humming a tune after he finished drying the dishes, not while doing that?

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