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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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

Submitted by suonghuynh on Mon, 23/10/2023 - 10:02


Hi, can you help me check which one is correct, "While John was talking to Sarah, Jane was trying to get his attention." or "While John was talking to Sarah, Jane tried to get his attention."

Hello suonghuynh,

Both can be correct! It depends on what you mean.

'While John was talking to Sarah, Jane tried to get his attention'. This is a little less descriptive than the other sentence, but also probably more common. It just means that Jane tried to get his attention. It could have been just one time, or it could have been that she tried several times while he was talking. All we know is that she tried, but since this is very often the most important information, this is probably the more common of these two options. 

'While John was talking to Sarah, Jane was trying to get his attention'. This option is a bit more specific. It's almost as if the speaker is remembering the situation and reliving it. The situation sounds more alive. This sort of sentence could be used in a story, for example. Perhaps the writer is explaining all the different ways Jane was trying to get John's attention.

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,
LearnEnglish team


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Submitted by hasnaa sakr on Fri, 20/10/2023 - 16:19


A: Did you start a new job?

B: Yes, I started yesterday.

A: Yeah, great.

B: When I was attending the first meeting, I had got smart idea.

A: Did you tell your manager about this idea?

B: When I wanted to tell him suddenly he was answering a call for an urgent reason.

Submitted by Aung Qui on Sat, 14/10/2023 - 15:18


Dear Teachers,
In the example ,At 6 pm yesterday, it was already getting dark.Can I use it was already got dark?

Hello Aung Qui,

No, I'm afraid 'it was got dark' is not a correct in this case. You could say 'it had already got' or 'it was already getting'.

'it had already got' means that at 6 p.m. it was completely dark. It got dark earlier than 6 p.m. You could also say 'it was already dark' and it would mean the same thing.

'it was already getting' means that it was between light and dark at 6 p.m. At that time, night was in the process of falling and daylight was fading.

Does that make sense? If you need more clarification, please don't hesitate to ask.

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Hello Aung Qui,

No, that isn't correct. You could say these:

At 6 pm yesterday, it was already getting dark. [the process had started but not finished]

At 6 pm yesterday, it was already dark. [this is the state at 6 pm.]

At 6 pm yesterday, it had already got dark [it became dark some time before 6 pm]

At 6 pm yesterday, it got dark. [when 6 pm came, the lights went out suddenly]



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by OmarHaddad on Sun, 08/10/2023 - 18:37


Thank you very much for these practices.