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Past Continuous or Past Simple?

The past simple and past continuous explained; a girl with long hair raising both hands in the air and smiling contently.

When to use past simple and past continuous

Understanding English verb tenses is crucial for effective communication, and two commonly used tenses that often cause confusion are the past simple and past continuous tenses. Let's compare the usage of these tenses, highlight the key differences, and explore examples to enhance your grasp of English grammar.

Past Simple Tense: The Snapshot of the Past

The past simple tense is used to describe completed actions or events in the past. It is like taking a snapshot of a specific moment, giving a clear and concise account of what happened.


  • Actions that happened at a specific point in time. Example: She graduated from college last year.

  • Completed actions in a sequence. Example: I woke up, had breakfast, and left for work.

  • Habits or repeated actions in the past. Example: Every summer, we visited our grandparents.

Past Simple Signal words

  1. Specific Time Expressions:

  • yesterday, last week, two days ago, in 2010, on Monday, in April, etc.

  1. Sequential Actions:

  • first, then, after that, finally, lastly, etc.

  1. Complete Actions:

  • already, just, ever, never, before, yet, etc. (more common in American English; British English prefers the present perfect with these adverbs)

  1. Habitual Actions in the Past:

  • always, often, usually, sometimes, every day/week, etc.

Past Continuous Tense: The Action in Progress

The past continuous tense, on the other hand, is used to indicate actions that were ongoing or in progress at a specific time in the past. It provides a sense of duration and context to the narrative.


  • Actions that were happening at a specific moment in the past. Example: While I was cooking dinner, the phone rang.

  • Two ongoing actions happening simultaneously in the past. Example: She was studying while her brother was playing video games.

  • An action in progress that was interrupted by another event. Example: I was watching TV when the power went out.

Past Continuous Signal words

  1. While/When:

  • while I was, when he was, while they were, etc.

  1. Interrupted Actions:

  • when, while, as, as long as, etc.

  1. Ongoing Actions:

  • at that time, at 6 PM yesterday, while we were, when it started, etc.

  1. Simultaneous Actions:

  • while I was, as she was, when they were, etc.

Differences Between Past Simple and Past Continuous:

  1. Nature of Action:

  • Past Simple: Describes completed actions.

  • Past Continuous: Indicates actions in progress.

  1. Time Frame:

  • Past Simple: Focuses on a specific point in the past.

  • Past Continuous: Emphasizes the duration of an action.

  1. Summary of Signal Keywords:

  • Past Simple: Keywords like yesterday, last week, ago, in 2010. Example: She finished her project yesterday.

  • Past Continuous: Keywords like while, when, as. Example: While I was reading a book, the doorbell rang.


Mastering the past simple and past continuous tenses is a crucial step toward achieving fluency in English. By understanding when and how to use these tenses, you can convey your thoughts and experiences with precision. Keep practicing, and soon you'll find yourself effortlessly navigating the intricacies of English grammar.

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