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Learn to Use Past Simple and Past Continuous -- Really.

At the start of a lesson, I almost always ask my students this past simple question: "What did you do last night?" Whenever we describe finished past actions (such as last night's activities), we use past simple, which makes past simple the most commonly used past tense.

When I say, "What did you do last night?", you can answer something like:

  • Not much. I stayed in.

  • I made dinner with my friend, and then we ate it and watched a movie.

  • I was sick. I went to bed early.

  • My mother and I went shopping.

  • My roommates and I cleaned the apartment.

​Check out the verbs in my examples above; notice how all of them are expressed in past simple. To form the past simple, you add "-ed" to the end of the verb (clean = cleaned), or you change it if it's irregular (make = made).

​The verb in past simple is the same for all subjects:

  • I went to bed.

  • He went to bed.

  • We went to bed.

See how easy it is? That's why we call it "simple."

Now, sometimes I might ask you a question like this: "What were you doing last night at ten p.m.? "

You should answer something like:

  • "I was studying for my test."

  • "I was sleeping."

  • "My friend and I were making a late dinner."

  • "I don't remember, but I think I was watching T.V."

​The above question and the answers are expressed in past continuous.

This is the main way that we use past continuous (also called "past progressive"): to describe "an action happening at a specific time in the past," like in the following conversation.

Q: What were you doing yesterday at six a.m.?

A: I was sleeping, of course! I was* in bed! Come on!

*We can't say "I was being in bed" because the “be verb” is a stative verb; stative (which are non-action) verbs are never expressed in continuous tenses.

Remember: Past continuous explains "an action happening at a specific time in the past."

Just like present continuous answers the question, "What are you doing now?", past continuous answers the question, "What were you doing then?"

How do we form the past continuous?

We use “Subject + was / were + verb-ing”:

Yesterday at six,

  • I was sleeping.

  • you were sleeping.

  • she was sleeping.

  • he was sleeping.

  • they were sleeping.

  • we were sleeping.

  • (The lion in the zoo) it was sleeping.

What past continuous really means is: "The action [sleeping] wasn't finished at that time [six]. The action was continuing at that time."

Let's see what past continuous looks like in negative form:

Last night at 10,

  • I wasn't sleeping.

  • you weren't sleeping.

  • she wasn't sleeping.

  • he wasn't sleeping.

  • they weren't sleeping.

  • we weren't sleeping.

  • (The lion in the zoo) it wasn't sleeping.

We use past continuous to describe an action at a specific moment in the past, so we describe it like it's not finished, by using "-ing."

When I ask a more general question about the past, like about yesterday or last weekend, I use past simple. Take a look at the following situation.

If I ask my friend:

What did you do last weekend? (Last weekend is finished, so I use past simple)

She might answer:

Oh, I went to a couple of parties. I slept a lot, and I did some homework. On Sunday night, I cleaned my apartment. (All these times and actions are finished, so she uses past simple)

Then, if I say:

Oh, so were you cleaning your apartment on Sunday night around eight? (Now I want to know about a specific time in the past, so I use past continuous!)

She can say:

Yes, I was. I was cleaning my apartment and listening to very loud music! (Her answer explains the action that wasn't finished at that specific time in the past, so she uses past continuous!)

I will tell her:

That's why you didn't answer your phone! I tried to call you a couple of times, but you didn't answer! (These actions are finished, so I use past simple again.)

Most of the time, when we ask questions about the past or describe the past, we use past simple. However, when we want to ask about a specific time in the past or describe an action that wasn't finished at a specific time in the past, we use past continuous.

Now, try answering the following questions on a piece of paper. After you write them in full sentences, try reading them out loud.


Writing full sentences by hand is a great way to remember information better. Reading your answers out loud is an effective way to practice spoken grammar.

Questions for you to answer: Last night at nine p.m., I was making dinner.

What were you doing around nine p.m. last night?

(If you can't remember exactly, use "maybe": Maybe I was...or...I think I was...)

Last night, I came home at 8:45, then I made dinner, then my husband and I ate dinner and watched T.V. We went to bed around one a.m.

What did you do last night?

This morning at six a.m., I was in bed! I was sleeping!

What were you doing this morning at six a.m.?

To recap: Past simple is the most commonly used past tense; we use it for all finished past actions. However, when we want to explain an action happening at a specific time, that's when we use past continuous ["Subject + was / were + verb-ing"].

Past continuous can also be used to explain the longer of two actions that were happening at the same time in the past, like in these examples:

  • While I was walking to school, I fell down and hurt myself.

  • They got into an accident while they were driving to work.

  • My brother broke his leg when he was skiing last week.

In these examples, the longer action is explained in past continuous, and the faster or shorter one is explained in past simple. This is the thing my students often have a problem with—figuring out which action should be said in past simple and which one should be said in past continuous. I have a useful exercise for this!

Go to my "Exercises" page. Click on the PDF download button to get the printable exercises: "Past Simple vs. Past Continuous Exercise One with Answer Key

Let me know what you think of the lessons and the exercises! -- Susan

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