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

Submitted by Arcasso on Fri, 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.
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Submitted by Jonathan R on Fri, 14/08/2020 - 13:06

In reply to by Arcasso

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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

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Submitted by johnny depp on Thu, 06/08/2020 - 17:02

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Great explanation
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Submitted by Rafaela1 on Tue, 04/08/2020 - 13:37

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I was watching TV, when an earthquake hit. :0

Submitted by manu on Mon, 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

Submitted by VegitoBlue on Sun, 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?