Past simple and past continuous are two of the most common tenses that English students will use when starting to use the language. When we tell stories, say what we did for the weekend, when we describe any events that happened in the past, these are the main two forms that we will use.
Here are the rules and the differences.
PAST SIMPLE: REGULAR AND IRREGULAR VERBS
- Use the past simple to talk about finished actions in the past.
- The form of the past simple is the same for all persons.
- To make the past simple of regular verbs add -ed. See the spelling rules in the chart below.
- Many common verbs are irregular in ‘+’ past simple, e.g. go > went, see > saw etc.
- Use the infinitive after didn’t for negatives and use Did…? for questions.
PAST CONTINUOUS: WAS / WERE+ VERB + -ING
At 8.45 last Saturday I was working in my office. I wasn’t doing anything important.
My friends were having breakfast. They weren’t working.
A. Was it raining when you got up? B. No, it wasn’t.
A. What were you doing at 11 o’clock last night? B. I was watching TV
• Use the past continuous to describe an action in progress at a specific moment in the past.
• We often use the past continuous to describe the situation at the beginning of a story or narrative.
PAST SIMPLE OR PAST CONTINUOUS?
I was working in my office when the boss walked in.
I was having lunch when my sister arrived.
- Use the past simple for a completed action in the past.
- Use the past continuous for an action in progress before or at the time of the past simple
Watch the video and check the explanation when we use past simple and past continuous.
TIME SEQUENCERS IN THE PAST
On our first date we went to the cinema. After that we started meeting every day.
On Thursday I had an argument with my boss. Next day I decided to look for a new job.
We sat down to eat. Two minutes later the phone rang.
When I came out of the club, he was waiting for me.
The accident happened when I was crossing the road.
- We use time sequencers to say when or in what order things happen.
- We use when as a time sequencer and also to join two actions.
I was watching TV when the phone rang. (two verbs joined by when)
THEN, AFTER THAT
The most common way of linking consecutive actions is with then or after that.
Eg. I got up and got dressed. Then / After that I made a cup of coffee.
BECAUSE & SO
She was driving fast because she was in a hurry. (reason)
She was in a hurry, so she was driving fast. (result)
- Use because to express a reason.
- Use so to express a result.
BUT & ALTHOUGH
She tried to stop the car, but she hit the man.
Although she tried to stop the car, she hit the man.
She was very tired, but she couldn’t sleep.
She couldn’t sleep, although she was very tired.
- Use but and although to show a contrast.
- Although can go at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence.
PAST TENSE QUIZ
Test your knowledge of past tenses and time sequencers in our interactive quiz!
Do you have similar tenses in the past in your language? What tenses do you find most difficult to use in English?