Past Continuous or Past Simple?

Flying Saucer near the Golden Gate Bridge

Well, when we were driving home last night, we saw a strange object in the sky.

1. Introduction

This lesson will help you to understand the difference between Past Continuous and Past Simple. Both the past simple and the past continuous refer to completed actions in the past.

2. Past Continuous or Past Simple?

A reporter is interviewing Mike and Harriet

Reporter: Mike and Harriet, tell me what you saw.
Harriet: Well, when we were driving home last night, we saw a strange object in the sky.
Mike: As we were coming down the hill into town, it just suddenly appeared in front of us. We stopped the car and got out.
Harriet: It was a very clear night. The stars were twinkling.
Mike: It was a spaceship. It seemed quite big. It had some strange writing on the side. And a light was flashing on the top.
Harriet: As we were watching it, it suddenly flew away and disappeared.

Now let’s see the difference between Past Continuous and Past Simple

PAST CONTINUOUS PAST SIMPLE
We use the Past Continuous for an action that we were in the middle of

  • We were driving home. (we were in the middle of our journey).
  • A light was flashing. (we saw it flashing).

We use the Past Continuous for an action happening at a specific time.

  • Mike was driving home at 8pm last night.
  • I was sleeping when I heard a strange noise.

We do not normally use the Past Continuous for state verbs.

  • The spaceship was seeming quite big. (Wrong)
  • It was having some writing on the side. (Wrong)
  • I wasn’t knowing what it was. (Wrong)
We use the Past Simple for a complete action in the past.

  • We drove home. (We already finished our journey).
  • The spaceship flew away. (The spaceship was not here anymore).

We use the Past Simple for an action happened in the past, the specific time is not important.

  • Mike drove home yesterday. He got home at 9pm.
  • I slept alone in my big house. I suddenly heard a strange noise.

We also use the Past Simple for state verbs.

  • The spaceship seemed quite big. (Right)
  • It had some writing on the side. (Right)
  • I didn’t know what it was. (Right)

3. It happened as I was driving

We often use the Past Continuous and Past Simple together when on (shorter) action comes in the middle of another (longer) one.

  • As we were driving down the hill, a strange object appeared in the sky.
  • While Laura was sitting in the garden, it suddenly began to rain.
  • You drove right past me when I was waiting for the bus.

The appearance of the strange object comes in the middle of the longer action, the drive down the hill.

  • Longer action:     W e   w e r e   d r i v i n g   d o w n   t h e   h i l l
  • Shorter action:                          An object appeared

In the three sentences above, the Past Continuous comes after as, while, and when. (As we were driving). We can also use when before the Past Simple.

  • We were driving down the hill when a strange object appeared in the sky.
  • David was making lunch when the phone rang.

But we also use two Past Simple verbs for one action after another.

  • When we saw the spaceship, we stopped the car. (We saw it and then we stopped).

We also use two Past Continuous verbs for two actions happening at the same long time in the past.

  • While I was cooking, my husband was watching TV.
  • Harriet was driving home yesterday, while a spaceship was flying along his car.

 

 

 

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