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Past Simple vs Past Continuous - Rules and exercises for intermediate level

Written by
Friday, 04 September 2009
Example of comparison of past simple and past continuous: They played tennis during the summer holidays. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license

A comparison between the Past Simple and the Past Continuous with a clear explanation of the differences between these two tenses with examples and exercises to help you learn. This online lesson in English grammar is designed for intermediate level students.

Different uses of the Past Simple and the Past Continuous

In English if we think about an action that starts and finishes in past we use the past simple. We only use the past continuous when it is necessary to show:

  1. Duration
  2. Repetition
  3. Comparison of the length of two simultaneous actions
Past continuous (I was doing)

The past continuous focuses on the duration of past situations and activities.

• We were having dinner when Lisa returned home. (We had started eating before Lisa returned home and were still having dinner when she returned home)

• Carl was studying biology at 9 p.m. (He had already started studying biology before 9 p.m. and he was still doing it at that time)

• They were playing tennis during the summer holydays. (They continued to play tennis for a long time during the summer holidays)

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Past simple (I did)

The past simple focuses on past actions as completed past events.

• We had dinner when Lisa returned home. (We waited until Lisa returned home before starting dinner)

• Carl studied biology at p.m. (He started studying biology at 9 p.m.)

• They played tennis during the summer holidays. (They played during the summer holidays perhaps once, perhaps more often -the sentence doesn't tell us)

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Past simple vs Past Continuous: be careful!

We don't normally use the past continuous with certain verbs describing states:

This castle belonged to the Queen of England.

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Last modified on Sunday, 05 February 2017 22:19

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