Easy Guide to Past Simple and Past Continuous
3.4.1 Past Simple and Past Continuous are often used together because they happen in the same time: finished time in the past. For example:
- last… (e.g. last week / month / year)
- …ago (e.g. two weeks / months / years ago)
Let’s look at these tenses in more detail:
In short, we use past simple to talk about finished actions in the past – time which is finished, e.g.
- He got to work at 8 o’clock yesterday morning.
3.4.2 Past simple is the most commonly used tense in English. If you think about it, we use it all the time to talk about what happened in the past – to give news and tell stories.
- You get home from somewhere and tell your partner or friend a funny story about what happened that day, or previously in the past
- You go to the doctor’s and tell them how you got a big bruise on your leg
- You read a newspaper article about something interesting that happened yesterday
- You read a novel in which almost every sentence uses past simple or past continuous and the past tense verb “said” appears many times on every page
…and so on!
3.4.3 Though not as common as past simple, we use past continuous when the action is continuous, i.e. for longer actions. Another difference is that in past continuous the action is often unfinished and interrupted:
We also use past continuous:
- to set the scene (see 3.4.4, below): I was making lunch when Bob got home.
- to describe specific times in the past: ‘What were you doing at 1pm yesterday?’ ‘I was washing my car.’
- to describe repeating actions in the past – with always: Philip was always talking to his friends in class.
Past continuous is not usually found on its own in a sentence. We use it in the first clause (part) of the sentence, then often use a conjunction such as and, but, because (or when and while, see below), then another clause with a different tense – probably past simple. The following sentence would be odd, for example:
‘I was reading a book.’ We have to ask, ‘When?’ or ‘Which book?’ etc.
In general, a sentence with past continuous on its own seems incomplete. An exception is when you describe repeating actions in the past with ‘always’ (see above), and also when you are answering a question, for example:
‘What were you doing all morning?’ ‘I was reading a book.’
Note: it is not possible to use state verbs with past continuous, because they do not have ing forms. For example, we can say “I was enjoying the concert” because enjoy is an active verb, but not “
I was liking the concert” because ‘like’ is a state verb.
3.4.4 We often put both tenses together in the same sentence, as in the second example above, using the conjunctions when and while:
I was walking to work when I met Bill.
We start with past continuous in the first clause of the sentence and then use when or while to connect to a past simple clause. If we use when, something happens after the past continuous clause; so past continuous is used to set the scene before a main action with past simple. If we use while, something happens during the past continuous clause:
3.4.5 This table can help us to understand the differences between these two common tenses:
3.4.6 As you can see from the information above, in past simple we have to remember to use did + infinitive form to make negative and question forms. This is not really logical and students often forget to do this extra thing – it’s just one more thing to remember! It would be far more logical if we could say:
Of course, this is the way that many students make negative and question forms in past simple, perhaps because it is more logical or closer to their first language. However, we must remember to take that extra step and use did + infinitive form.
3.4.7 In past simple we need to use past tense form. Past tense form is similar to past participle form (used for present perfect) because with both forms it is necessary to know about irregular verbs. We add -ed to a regular verb to make both past tense and past participle forms, but since irregular verbs are all different (they are irregular!) we have no choice but to learn the different forms. There are thousands of regular verbs in English, with -ed endings, and only a few hundred common irregular verbs. The problem is that irregular verbs occur very frequently, so it is necessary to learn the different past tense and past participle forms. That is why you will often see a chart of irregular verbs on the classroom wall at a language school. There is no getting away from irregular verb endings – you just have to learn them, if you want to be correct using past simple.
3.4.8 On these two pages – the-most-important-verbs-in-english-past-simple-and-past-continuous – you can see how the most common verbs in English – BE, DO, HAVE, and GO – look in past simple and past continuous tenses. Try to learn these important verb tables.
Ex. 3.4.1 Writing Complete the sentences below using one of these past tense verbs:
went ate watched rained came enjoyed had drank heard walked
1. Last week I _________________ to London for the weekend.
2. I _________________ you talking about my friend yesterday.
3. Last night I _________________ a film about space travel.
4. I missed the bus so I _________________ home.
5. I’m not here on my own. My friend _________________ with me.
6. We _________________ the concert.
7. It _________________ this morning so I didn’t go out.
8. I _________________ two glasses of water before going to bed.
9. I _________________ some cereal and toast for my breakfast.
10. I went to the shop to see if they _________________ any postcards.
Ex. 3.4.2 Writing Complete the sentences below using one of these past tense verbs:
went laughed made thought left bought finished tried wanted cooked
1. I _________________ a really nice meal for my mum’s birthday.
2. My brother _________________ to come too, but he wasn’t allowed.
3. We all _________________ when Tina fell off her chair!
4. I think that we were _________________ for each other!
5. Kim and Charlotte _________________ the party at 1.40am.
6. He _________________ to call you but couldn’t get through.
7. I _________________ about driving to the coast for the weekend.
8. Tessa _________________ her wedding dress last Monday.
9. I went home after the concert _________________.
10. My friends all _________________ to see the new exhibition in town.
Ex. 3.4.3 Writing Complete the verb tables using past simple (positive):
Ex. 3.4.4 Writing Complete the verb tables using past continuous (positive):
Ex. 3.4.5 Writing Rearrange the words in each sentence to make a question in past simple. Don’t forget to put a capital letter at the start of each sentence and a question mark at the end:
1. company you which did recommend taxi
2. last watch did film you night that
3. did you learning when English start
4. results your about you ask did
5. call your morning why this you boss did
6. did Tina say to what you
7. on parcel arrive time your did
8. go how your did exam
9. you did party who to invite your
10. the rest did where go cheesecake of the
Ex. 3.4.6 Writing Rearrange the words in each sentence to make a question in past continuous tense. Don’t forget to put a capital letter at the start of each sentence and a question mark at the end:
1. you the as leaving arrived was train just
2. you phone when kitchen going the were rang the into
3. most night posts of were reading on the you Twitter funny
4. you Tim’s of meal my to were thinking mother birthday inviting
5. in yesterday annoying buzzing the was an manner bee around
6. you up about were in-jokes always Kevin making
7. uncle the running was when your began earthquake bath a
8. when their salad to the refusing grandma children eat were arrived
9. heading when exploded for it the was straight earth meteorite
10. Lena’s a to former son husband was meet marriage going his from
Elementary English Course Unit 3: Health and the Human Body
Ex. 3.4.7 Writing Write 10 sentences using this model:
past continuous + conjunction + past simple
Ex. 3.4.8 Writing a) Write about what you were doing yesterday at the following times. Use past continuous and try to use a different verb for each sentence. For example:
At 4 pm I was reading a book.
1. At 6.30 am _________________________________________________
2. At 7.45 am _________________________________________________
3. At 8.25 am _________________________________________________
4. At 9.05 am _________________________________________________
5. At 10.40 am _________________________________________________
6. At 11.15 am _________________________________________________
7. At 12.50 pm _________________________________________________
8. At 2 pm _________________________________________________
9. At 3.23 pm _________________________________________________
10. At 4 pm _________________________________________________
11. At 5.35 pm _________________________________________________
12. At 6.48 pm _________________________________________________
13. At 7.55 pm _________________________________________________
14. At 9.05 pm _________________________________________________
15. At 11 pm _________________________________________________
b) Ask your partner about what they were doing yesterday and complete the sentences again. Or think of a famous person and imagine what they were doing!
Ex. 3.4.9 Writing Complete each sentence using either yesterday or tomorrow:
1. I went to the cinema ____________________.
2. I’m playing golf ____________________.
3. We had an early lunch ____________________.
4. Her sister is going into hospital ____________________.
5. What time are you getting up ____________________?
6. I’m taking the car to the garage first thing ____________________.
7. My brother moved house ____________________.
8. Did you see that new music shop in town ____________________?
9. I met Lisa and Isabella for a coffee ____________________.
10. He’s visiting his friend ____________________ afternoon.
11. There was a lot of noise outside ____________________.
12. We’re going swimming ____________________ morning.
13. Are you coming round ____________________ evening?
14. He wasn’t at work ____________________ afternoon because he went to hospital for an appointment.
15. John was in Birmingham all day ____________________ for a meeting.
16. I gave them some homework ____________________.
17. I’m not going on holiday until ____________________.
18. I missed the last bus ____________________, so I had to walk home.
19. It was cold ____________________, wasn’t it?
20. Sally is getting her exam results ____________________.
21. We packed our suitcases ____________________ evening.
22. Is he still cooking lunch for his girlfriend and her family _______________?
23. Bob and Janet are coming round for a game of cards ____________________ night.
24. We’re flying to Spain ____________________ afternoon.
25. He’s playing football for a couple of hours __________________ morning.
26. I saw your friend Ian in Sainsbury’s ____________________.
27. I’m doing all my ironing ____________________.
28. We both bought the same pair of shoes ____________________.
29. Is he going to tell you about the course ____________________, or later on today?
30. Jen swam forty lengths of the pool ____________________.
Ex. 3.4.10 Writing Complete the table from memory, then check your answers: