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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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,
LearnEnglish team

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


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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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


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,
LearnEnglish team


Submitted by Gile on Sun, 12/11/2023 - 19:33


I came across the following sentence:

While mother _____ (prepare) lunch, Janet _____(set) the table.
We can go with "was preparing" and "was setting", but can we go with "was preparing" and "set" as if to say that setting of the table happened sometime during the process of preparing lunch? Somehow setting the table doesn't seem to me as a single short action that might interrupt the ongoing one...

Submitted by AbdullahAlmotairi on Thu, 02/11/2023 - 10:29


Hello teachers, can you help me understanding why the chosen answer here is correct, and the other one not. However I see all of them correct, which I'm wrong ( They _____ the shop when I got there, so I couldn't go in and buy anything. ) already closed or were already closing. And explain to me why one of them is correct?

Hi AbdullahAlmotairi,

Thanks for your question.

They were already closing the shop when I got there (past continuous) means that at the moment I got there, the "closing" was ongoing. It had already started, and it was continuing at that moment. They were in the middle of closing the shop at that moment.

You can say They closed (past simple) the shop when I got there, which means either (1) they closed the shop at the same time I got there, or (2) they closed the shop a moment after I got there. Those sentences are grammatical - but, they don't make sense if you add "already", since "already" shows the action happened BEFORE that moment (not at the same time, or after). If you mean they closed the shop BEFORE that moment, you can use the past perfect to make this clear: They had already closed the shop when I got there.

Does that make sense?


LearnEnglish team