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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

She and I were packing the boxes just 8 weeks ago. Is it correct? If yes, then is it because the word “just” indicates more specific period of time in the past?

Hello Kamwengv,

Yes, that sentence is grammatically correct -- it refers to an action in progress in the past. You could also say 'She and I packed the boxes just 8 weeks ago' and it is also correct. The difference is that the first one portrays the action as an action in progress and the second portrays it as a finished action.

The second one is probably more common, but it really depends on the situation the sentence is found in.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks Kirk
What if there is No “just” in this sentence?! Will it be Only a simple past tense, rite?

Hello again Kamwengv,

No, the verb could still be 'were packing'. If I were describing what my sister and I were spending a lot of time doing together eight weeks ago, then 'She and I were packing the boxes eight weeks ago' would be an appropriate form, for example. In this sentence, I'm kind of imagining all the different moments I spent with my sister at that time, and in many of them, we were packing boxes -- maybe, for example, she was moving house and needed my help.

If I said 'We packed the boxes', that would also be correct, but it wouldn't focus on the time we spent together as much.

Hope this helps.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

It’s hard to imagine when there is a specific “past” time like 8 weeks ago, yesterday, last night! It’s clear to indicate the past time but you try to use different scenarios to advance “on progress” in the past. It sounds to violate the simple past tense concept!

Hello Kamwengv,

The idea of something being 'in progress' is that it began before and was interrupted by another event before it was completed. For example:

I read a magazine. John arrived.

These are three sequential events which happen one after the other.

I was reading a book. John arrived.

Here, I was in the middle of reading the magazine when John arrived; his arrival interrupted my reading, which was not finished.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

How come it happened for the above example
Three years ago, we were living in our home town.
There is a specific time mentioned. It should be a simple past tense rather than past continuous tense. Please advise!

1-He (studied / was studying) from 5 to 8
2-he (worked / was working) all day yesterday *if we removed *yesterday * would it be the same?
3-he (walked / was walking) for two hours
4-he (worked / was working) all + night or any period of time.
5- the baby (slept / was sleeping) peacefully through the night.

I know that the PP Usually gets interrupted by another action,and we need more context to decide,but what about these sentences can we use both or just one over another ?

Hello Turki123456,

In 1, 2, 3 and 4 both forms are possible -- as you suggest, one or the other would be better depending on the meaning or context. Without the word 'yesterday', both forms are also possible in 2.

In 5, I'd say 'was sleeping' would not be correct because 'through the night' implies that the period is already over and I can't imagine a situation in which the form would make sense. Perhaps there is some context when it could work, but I can't think of one off the top of my head!

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Another question sir. When we use time clauses (until,after,before,as soon as),we only use past simple and not past progressive?
(Examples):
1-before I went to bed,I finished my homework
2-i went to bed after I finished my home work
3-i stayed up until I finished my homework
4-yesterday i slept until 9pm.it felt amazing (can’t we say here i was sleeping or because we have *until* and it must be past simple.

Thank you in advance sir.

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