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 Jo Ann on Tue, 28/04/2020 - 11:35

Hello there, Can one also come across a Past simple tense question that has to be changed into Present Simple tense. But than nothing needs to be changed cause it's written the same in both present and past simple tense.

Hello Jo Ann

A question in the past simple would use 'did' and a question in the present simple would use 'does' or 'do'. This is what makes the time clear.

Does that make sense?

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user OlaIELTS

Submitted by OlaIELTS on Wed, 08/04/2020 - 03:18

It's quiet helpful.

Submitted by itspb008 on Sun, 05/04/2020 - 16:11

What _____ at around 8 a.m. this morning? in this question how do I know that option (2) is correct and options (1) is incorrect. I can't understand the question I didn't buy anything. They _____ the shop when I got there. Same situation as above Please clear the doubt.

Hello itspb008

In the first case, 'at around 8 a.m.' indicates that the question is about an action that was in progress, so the continuous form is the correct one.

In the second case, the continuous form refers to an action that was in progress at the time you arrived at the shop. The past simple with 'already' doesn't make sense here, because it implies that the shop had been closed before you arrived.

Hope this helps.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Monty on Fri, 03/04/2020 - 22:54

Hello there, I'd appreciate some input on the difference between: Last night I watched TV from 8 pm to 10 pm. (past simple) versus Last night I was watching TV from 8 pm to 10 pm. (past continuous) Thanks in advance.

Hello Monty,

It's hard to comment without knowing the context. Generally, the simple form sees the action as a single event, while the continuous form sees it as an ongoing process or activity. The simple form is more likely if you are talking about your 'achievements' last night, while the continous form is more likely if the action was interrupted or you need to emphasise the work you did (answering the question Why are your eyes so red?, for example).



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by KHiri Abdulnasser on Fri, 20/03/2020 - 14:01

Helpful comments and amazing answers from the educator. thank you Kirk.

Hello KHiri Abdulnasser

Thanks very much for your message! We're very happy to be able to help our users with questions about what's on our website.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

what's the difference between
I didn't wake up early this morning
i didn't woke up early this morning