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Past continuous and past simple

Do you know how to use the past continuous and past simple?

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

Language level

Beginner: A1
Pre-intermediate: A2

Comments

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?

Hello VegitoBlue,

The past simple action takes place at any time during the past continuous action, not at the exact midpoint.

You are also right in thinking that another time reference that is not the past simple can 'interrupt' the past continuous action. It doesn't have to be at the exact midpoint -- it can be at any time during that period of time.

One of the possible meanings of the continuous aspect is that of duration in time, so you can refer to a point or even period of time within that using some kind of time reference, which includes phrases such as 'at 8pm' or 'When she arrived' (and many others).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

thanks a lot

Hello Sir
A. Is that fresh bread I smell ?.
B. Yes, your mother has been baking all morning.
Referring to 'B' can't we say " had been baking all morning"
Please let me know
Thank you.
Regards
Lal

Hello Lal,

Since there is a present result (the smell), the present perfect is most appropriate here. Although the context is limited, the past perfect does not make sense in the sentence as it stands.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot!
Greetings from Chile.

Hi the learnEngish team,

In the Grammar test 2, Q5, could you explain why the answer is "were already closing" ? I thought the answer is "already closed", because of the shop is closed, they didn't buy anything. Does it make sense?

Hi Elaine20,

It is possible to use a past form in this sentence, but we would use a past perfect:

...they had already closed...

The past simple does not work with 'already' in this context. You could make the sentence without 'already' (...they closed the shop when I arrived), but that would have a strange meaning. It would suggest that they waited until you arrived and then closed the shop because they didn't like you for some reason!

Out of the two answers possible, were already closing is the correct answer. It tells us that they were already in the process of closing the shop - clearing out the last customers, emptying the tills, turning off the lights etc - when you arrived, so you couldn't buy anything.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,
Could please tell me which sentence (s) is correct:

1- We were playing football between 4 and 5 pm yesterday.

2- We played football between 4 and 5 pm yesterday.

3- We were playing football for an hour yesterday.

4- We played football for an hour yesterday.

Thanks

Hello Reza

They could all be correct in specific contexts, though 3 is a bit strange.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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