U9: Simple past VS past continuous

Simple past vs Past Continuous




Simple PastPast Progressive
irregular verbs: see 2nd column of irregular verbs
I spoke
regular verbs: verb + ed
I worked
past form of 'be' + ing form of verb
I was speaking
you were speaking
he / she / it was speaking
we were speaking
they were speaking
Exceptions when adding 'ed' :
  • when the final letter is e, only add d.
    Example: love - loved
  • after a short, stressed vowel, the final consonant is doubled
    Example: admit - admitted
  • final l is always doubled in British English (not in American English)
    Example: travel - travelled
  • after a consonant, final y becomes i. (but: not after a vowel)
    Example: worry - he worried
    but: play - he played
Exceptions when adding 'ing' :
  • silent e is dropped (but: does not apply for -ee)
    Example: come - coming
    but: agree - agreeing
  • after a short, stressed vowel, the final consonant is doubled
    Example: sit - sitting
  • final l is always doubled in British English (not in American English)
    Example: travel - travelling
  • final ie becomes y.
    Example: lie - lying
See also explanations on Simple Past and Past Progressive


After another or at the same time?

Do you want to express that the actions in the past happened one after another or at the same time?
Simple PastPast Progressive
after another
She came home, switched on the computer and checked her e-mails.
at the same time
Simon was playing on the computer while his brother was watching TV.

New action or already in progress?

If you want to express that a new action happened in the middle of another action, you need both tenses: Simple Past the new action and Past Progressive for the action already in progress.
Simple PastPast Progressive
new action
My mobile rang (when I was sitting in a meeting.)
action already in progress
While I was sitting in a meeting, (my mobile suddenly rang.)

Only mentioning or emphasising progress?

Do you just want to mention that an action took place in the past (also used for short actions)? Or do you want to put emphasis on the progress, e.g. that an action was taking place at a certain time?
Simple PastPast Progressive
just mentioning
Colin played football yesterday.
emphasising progress
Yesterday at six o'clock, Colin was playing football.

Certain Verbs

The following verbs are usually only used in Simple Past (not in the progressive form).
  • state: be, cost, fit, mean, suit
    Example: We were on holiday.
  • possession: belong, have
    Example: Sam had a cat.
  • senses: feel, hear, see, smell, taste, touch
    Example: He felt the cold.
  • feelings: hate, hope, like, love, prefer, regret, want, wish
    Example: Jane loved pizza.
  • brain work: believe, know, think, understand
    Example: I did not understand him.
  • introductory clauses for direct speech: answer, ask, reply, say
    Example: “I am watching TV,“ he said.

Signal words

Simple PastPast Progressive
  • first
  • then
  • If-Satz Typ II (If I talked, …)
  • when
  • while
  • as long as

Exercise 1: Questions and Answers

Use the simple past or present progressive tense. Check your answers by clicking on the arrows.

1. I dropped a cup while I  (wash) the dishes.
2. Jon and Bill were washing the car when they  (see) their friend Alex.
3. Tony came to see me while I  (do) my homework.
4. The children  (play) when their father came home.
5. When Inga was driving, she  (notice) an animal in the road.
6. Annie  (call) when Kerry was studying.
7. While the movie was playing, Tomoko  (eat) popcorn.

Exercise 2

1. The children (play) in the park when it started to rain.

  • 2. I was watching a movie when I (notice) him standing outside.
  • 3. She arrived when I (have) a bath, so I couldn't answer the door!
  • 4. I (see) a famous celebrity when I was shopping on Oxford Street yesterday.
  • 5. She was drinking too much so she (fall). I hope she learnt her lesson!
  • 6. Charlie (hide) in my wardrobe when Lola found him. She screamed!
  • 7. The computer (break) when I was checking my bank balance.
  • 8. She was smiling until the terrible singer (come) on stage.
  • 9. I (live) in Cape Town when Michelle Obama visited.
  • 10. My parents were watching me carefully but my brother (distract)them so I could sneak out the window!

Exercises on Simple Past and Past Progressive

More exercises 

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