The Past Simple is used to describe an action that happened at a specific time in the
past. The action is seen as complete and finished. We use it with time words like ago
and last, and with specific time words that indicate the past, like yesterday.
Use the past simple for completed actions, past habits, permanent things from the
past, any fact from the past, and the main events of any story.
a) I finished school 2 years ago.
b) She got her driver’s license last year.
c) We found a kitten in the street.
The Past Continuous is used to describe an action that was in duration at a specific
time in the past. When used with the past simple, the past continuous is seen as
the longer action. We often use it with the word while to show two actions happening
at the same time.
Use the past continuous for: actions in progress in the past, temporary things from
the past, two actions at the same time, and background information in a story.
a) I was walking down the road when I saw a shooting star.
b) I was listening to the radio while I was doing the dishes.
Consider the difference between these two sentences:
- I was cooking dinner when he got home.
- When he got home, I cooked our dinner.
In the 1st sentence, the speaker started the action before the man got home.
In the 2nd sentence the speaker cooked the dinner after the man got home.
The past simple is used for consecutive events, which means events that are
explained in the order that they happened. For this reason, it is quite boring to tell a
story only using the past simple, because you tell everything in a linear fashion,
without any suspense.
The past continuous gives us the background for the story.
‘I was sitting in the garden late at night when I saw a UFO.’
Seeing the UFO is the main part if the story, but where and when it happened is
introduced with the past continuous.
The past continuous doesn’t often come by itself unless it is in answer to a specific
‘Why didn’t you answer the phone?’ ‘Because I was having a shower’.
Choose the correct answers in each sentence.
- I was sitting/sat on a bench at the beach and was seeing/saw dolphins in
- We played/were playing football every day after school.
- The phone rang/was ringing when we arrived/were arriving.
- They made/were making lunch when the doorbell was ringing/rang.
- The students listened/were listening as the teacher explained/was
explaining the grammar.
- My mother was watching/watched me while I played/was playing in case I
got/was getting hurt.
- I learnt/was learning how to drive last year.
- The artist painted/was painting in the garden when it was starting/started to