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
Read the explanation to learn more.
The past continuous and the past simple help us to show how two past actions or situations are connected.
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?
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
Thank you so much for clarifiyng these important aspects!!!
Could you please also help me with the following:
Can we ask questions like "What were you doing at 8 p.m. last night?" and "I was cleaning my flat all the morning" within some particular context too? Can I ask my friend "What were you doing yesterday in the evening?" (without any previous context, just to know how they spent their time) or can I say "I was cleaning my flat for five hours" just to emphasize how long it took me?
In answer to your first question, yes, you could use those two sentences in an appropriate context. For example, when the police are interviewing people to find out where they were at the time of a crime, they could ask that first question and you could respond with that statement about cleaning.
It would be a bit odd to say 'What were you doing last night?' without any previous context. If you were just beginning a conversation or it's the first time you're talking about last night, a past simple would be the best form. Even if you had already explained what you did last night, it would be unusual to use a continuous form in the question to your friend. It would also be unusual for you to say 'I was cleaning' to just say what you did.
You could say 'I was cleaning' when, for example, there's some other reference point in the course of the previous night. For example, if the president of your country appeared on television and radio with an important speech, then you could say 'When the president gave the speech, I was cleaning my flat. I didn't hear about what she said until later' or something like that.
Hope this helps.
All the best,
It does help.
Many many thanks for your time and explanations!!! I appreciate it a lot!
Hello, which is correct:
I played tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday.
or I was playing tennis from 6 to 9 yesterday.
Both are grammatically possible so the choice depends on the context. If you simply want to talk about what you did then the simple form (played) is the one to use. The continuous requires some other reference point. For example:
The use of aspect (here, the continuous aspect) is always context-specific. You need to think not just about the sentence but in which situation you might say it.
The LearnEnglish Team
Is "He woke up early this morning" a verbal sentence?
Is "He was here last night" a nominal sentence?
If so, is there further explanation about the difference between nominal n verbal sentences?
Thank you so much for your answer
Hello Risa warysha,
I'm not entirely sure what you mean by 'verbal sentence' and 'nominal sentence'.
Verbal is a term used sometimes to describe words which are not verbs but which are similar in meaning or form to verbs. The examples in my Dictionary of Linguistics are as follows:
Nominal is similar: it describes words which have some of the attributes of nouns but not all.
Perhaps you could explain what you mean about the sentences rather than using labels. That might make it easier for me to follow your thinking.
The LearnEnglish Team
Are there no grammar terms for those sentences I gave? Are both sentences just called sentences?
And what is the example of nominal, sir?
Hello again Risa warysha,
The entry for nominal is as follows:
As you can see, it's not used in the way you did. To be honest, I don't really see anything special about these two sentences. What about them makes them different from each other, in your view? In other words, what features are you trying to name here? Both sentences have subjects, finite verbs and one or more adverbial phrases. I don't really see much difference between them.
The LearnEnglish Team
I thought nominal sentence is a sentence that has "be/ is/ am/ are/ was/ were" as a verb in it.
I think I got your explanation, sir.
Thank you very much