Past simple, past continuous

Past Simple

FORM: [VERB+ed] or irregular verbs. Check previous post on pronunciation of-ed if still in doubt.
  • You called Debbie.
  • Did you call Debbie?
  • You did not call Debbie.

Use the Simple Past to express the idea that an action started and finished at a specific time in the past. Examples:

  • I saw a movie yesterday.
  • Last year, I travelled to Japan.
  • Did you have dinner last night?

We use the Simple Past to list a series of completed actions in the past. These actions happen 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and so on.

Example: I finished work, walked to the beach, and found a nice place to swim.

The Simple Past can also be used to describe a habit which stopped in the past. To make it clear that we are talking about a habit, we often add expressions such as: always, often, usually, never, when I was a child, when I was younger, etc.

Example: I studied French when I was a child.

Past Continuous

FORM: [was/were + present participle]
  • You were studying when she called.
  • Were you studying when she called?
  • You were not studying when she called.

Use the Past Continuous to indicate that a longer action in the past was interrupted. The interruption is usually a shorter action in the Simple Past. Remember this can be a real interruption or just an interruption in time.

  • I was watching TV when she called.
  • When the phone rang, she was writing a letter.
  • While I was writing the email, the computer suddenly went off.

When you use the Past Continuous with two actions in the same sentence, it expresses the idea that both actions were happening at the same time. The actions are parallel.


  • I was studying while he was making dinner.
  • While Ellen was reading, Tim was watching television.

Finally, in English, we often use a series of parallel actions to describe the atmosphere at a particular time in the past. That is specially useful when stting the context of a story.

Example: When I walked into the office, several people were busily typing, some were talking on the phones, the boss was yelling directions, and customers were waiting to be helped. One customer was yelling at a secretary and waving his hands. Others were complaining to each other about the bad service.

When vs while

When you talk about things in the past, “when” is most often followed by Past simple, whereas “while” is usually followed by Past Continuous. “While” expresses the idea of “during that time.” Study the examples below. They have similar meanings, but they emphasize different parts of the sentence.


  • I was studying when she called.
  • While I was studying, she called.


Non-Continuous Verbs cannot be used in any continuous tenses.  Instead of using Past Continuous with these verbs, you must use Past Simple.


  • Jane was being at my house when you arrived. Not Correct
  • Jane was at my house when you arrived. Correct

Would you like to have some more practice? Try exercise 1, 2, 3 and 4.

This entry was posted in Grammar, NEF. Unit 5, New English File, R. Unit 2, SP. Unit 5. Bookmark the permalink.

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