Past Continuous & Past Simple

When we talk about two events of activities that went on over the same period of past time, we can often use the past continuous or the past simple for both:

Mia was reading to the children while

Ben was washing up. (or…readwashed up.)

Using the past continuous emphasises that the event or activity (‘was reading’) was in progress during the past period of time (‘while Ben was washing up’). Compare:

When I was learning/learned to drive I was living with my parents.

Was learning emphasises that the activity was in progress (‘I had lessons during this time’) and learned emphasises completion (‘I passed my test during this time’).

When we talk about two or more past completed events that followed one another, we use the past simple, not the past continuous, for both.

She got up when the alarm clock went off.

We usually use the past simple rather than the past continuous to talk about repeated past actions:

We went to Paris three times last year.

Did you drive past her house every day?

However, we can use the past continuous, particularly in spoken English, when we want to emphasise that repeated actions went on for a limited and temporary period of past time:

When Kata was in hospital, we were visiting her twice a day. (or …wvisited…)

To lose weight before the race, I wasn’t eating any biscuits for weeks (or…I didn’t eat…)

or to talk about something that happened surprisingly often:

Last week I was having to bring work home every night to get it all done. (or…had…)

When the builders were here I was making them cups of tea all the time. (or…made…)

We often use the past simple in a narrative (e.g. a report or story) to talk about a single complete past event and the past continuous to describe the situation that existed at the time. The event might have interrupted the situation, or happened while the situation was in progress.

Erika dropped her bag while she was getting into her car.

She was shaking with anger as she left the hotel.

We can use either the past continuous or the past simple (or past perfect) with some verbs to talk about things we intended to do but didn’t:

We were meaning to call in and see you, but Mark wasn’t feeling well. (or… We meant…)

Also: consider +ing, expect to, hope to, intend to, plan to/on + -ing, think about/of + -ing, want to

These verbs (with the exception of mean and expect) and wonder about can also be used with the present and past continuous to report what we might do in the future. The past continuous is less definite than the present continuous:

was thinking of going to China next year, but it depends how much money I’ve got. (Less definite that I‘m thinking of going…)

We were wondering about inviting Eva over tomorrow. (Less definite that We‘re wondering about…)


Complete the sentences using these pairs of verbs. Use the past simple in one gap and the past continuous in the other.

come… show get… go hope… give live… spend
look… see play… break start… check in
  1. Just as I _____________into the bath all the lights ______ off.
  2. I ___________ to go away this weekend, but my boss ________ me some work that I have to finish by Monday.
  3. When I __________ in Paris, I __________ three hours a day travelling to and from work.
  4. A friendly American couple _____ chatting to him as he _______ at the hotel reception.
  5. I bumped into Lena last week. She ______ a lot better than when I last ___ her.
  6. My boss _______ into the office just as I ________ everyone my holiday photos.
  7. I _______ badminton four times a week before I _______ my ankle.


Now, use the same tense, either past simple or past continuous, in both spaces.

add… taste go off… light not listen… explain push… run not watch… dream
  1. The smoke alarm_____ when he____ a candle underneath it.
  2. I can’t remember how to answer this question. I must confess that I________ while the teacher ______ it to us.
  3. She ______ more salt to the soup, and then it _____ much better.
  4. Although the television was on, I _______ it. Instead I _______ about my holidays.
  5. She ______ open the door and _______ into the room.

Complete this email with either the past simple or the past continuous form of the verbs in brackets. Where alternatives are possible, think about any difference in meaning.

I ______(buy) a new alarm clock the other day in Taylor’s the jewellers, when I actually _____(see) somebody shoplifting. I’d just finished paying for my clock and as I _______(turn) round, an elderly woman _____(slowly put) a silver plate into a bag that she ______ (carry). Then she ______(walk) over to another part of the shop and ______ (pick up) an expensive-looking watch a number of times. When she ______ (think) that nobody _______(look), she _____ (drop) it into the bag. Before I ______(have) a chance to tell the staff in the shop, she _____ (notice) that I _____ (watch) her and ______ (hurry) out. Unfortunately for her, two police officers ____ (walk) past just at that moment and she _____ (run) straight into them.