The Past Simple and Past Continuous
This post will look at when to use the past continuous and the past simple. It will give you a summary of the two tenses together and also some interesting ways to to help you to try and remember when to use them. I have also included some exercises and a quiz to help you practice.
For a detailed look at how the Past Simple is formed you can see this here – Past Simple Tense
For a detailed look at how the Past Continuous is formed you can see this here; this also includes when not to use it – Past Continuous Tense
1. The past simple is used for completed actions in the past at a specific time. This specific time might or might not be mentioned.
- I watched the football game last night.
- He finished his homework.
- Sarah saw you this morning.
2. It is used for a duration that starts and stops in the past.
- I lived in Spain for 2 years.
- Did you speak to her for long?
- Yes, I spoke to her for 3 hours.
3. It is used for habits in the past.
- When I was young I played football everyday.
- They went there all the time.
- Did you play a musical instrument when you were at school?
Advanced note: This is similar to ‘used to’ e.g. I used to play football everyday
4. It is also used for past facts or generalizations.
- She was very intelligent at school.
- We were the best team.
- Did they move away a long time ago?
1. Action in progress at a specific time in the past.
- At 8pm yesterday I was watching football.
- This time last week you were making a speech.
- At 3am this morning we were sleeping.
- The sun was shining when I woke up this morning.
Extra Note: A good example of this on television is when you hear the police interview a suspect, ‘What were you doing on the night of the murder?’
2. Two actions that were happening at the same time.
- I was talking with Peter while Sarah was talking with John.
- They were listening to music while their mother was cooking.
Past Continuous and Past Simple Together
1. Interrupted actions.
The past continuous is used to show that a longer action in the past was interrupted by another action (past simple). Notice the use of ‘when’
- I was reading the newspaper when my father called me.
- I saw you yesterday. You were sitting on the bench near the school.
- The sun was shining when I got up today.
2. The Past Continuous is used to give the background of an action, followed by the Past Simple to show what actions followed.
- I was walking in the park when I saw Bill.
- I was reading the newspaper when she came.
- They were talking when the concert started.
We keep using the past simple to say that one thing happened after another e.g., I was walking i the park when I saw Bill. I stopped and we talked about the party. Then he had to go.
Exercises and Questions
1. Answer the following questions;
What did you do last night?
What did you do at the weekend?
What were you doing at 3am this morning?
What were you doing at 3pm on Sunday?
What were you like when you were 12?
2. Finish the following statements
I was walking by the river when..
I was watching television when..
This time last week I was..
Past Simple vs Past Continuous QUIZ – Test your knowledge of the Past Simple and Past Continuous
If you need help on your pronunciation of the past simple – Past Simple Pronunciation