Learn the Difference Between Past Continuous and Past Simple
Recently, I was teaching a class, and my student asked me to explain the difference between past simple and past continuous. While I was explaining this to her, we realized that the difference isn’t always obvious. As usual, the best way to learn is to practice with real-life examples. So, today we will learn the grammar, then practice with an NPR story on my favorite kind of news-good news.
First, take a look at this video explanation of these tenses. Past perfect is also included, but today we’ll focus specifically on continuous and simple.
Past continuous: (was/were) + present participle
- Interrupted action in the past: I was teaching a class when my student asked me a question.
- Specific time in the past: I’m sorry I missed your call at 1:00am, I was sleeping.
- Two actions at the same time: You were cooking dinner while I was coming home.
- Describe the mood/tone: When I came home, a lot of people were standing around talking. Several of them were drinking, some were dancing, and many were shouting.
Within the first 6 seconds of this segment, you’ll hear an example of past continuous. Listen only to the first 6 seconds and fill in the following blanks:
- Joe Du(sp?) ___ _____ helped into her gorgeous white wedding dress this week when a tooth on the zipper _____.
- Why was past continuous used? Choose from the list above. Don’t forget to write your answers in the comments section!
Past simple: (verb)ed
- Completed action in the past: We rode our bikes home yesterday.
- Series of completed actions: We rode our bikes home, cooked dinner, and watched TV.
- Duration of completed past action: I lived in Santiago for one year.
- Past habits or hobbies: Where did you work in high school?
Now, listen to the rest of the NPR segment. Choose the correct tense, and for the sentences with **, write why the tense was used from the lists above. For an extra challenge, try completing the exercise before listening, then check your answers afterwards!
- It (was being/was) Sunday in Guelph, Ontario, and no tailor shop (was being/was) open.
- Joe Du (didn’t/wasn’t doing) want to walk down the aisle to marry Earl Lee with pins in the back of her dress, but no one in the wedding party (was knowing/knew) how to make the repair.**
- An enterprising bridesmaid (was knocking/knocked) on the neighbor’s door to ask David Hobson if he might have a pair of pliers they (could/were canning) borrow.
- Mr. Hobson (was taking/took) in the situation-the bridesmaid, the lacy white dress and a request for pliers and (said/was saying), “I’ve got better than tools-I’ve got a master tailor.”
- David Hobson (was having/had) a family of Syrian refugees from Aleppo living at his home for a few days.**
- He (was being/was) indeed a master tailor in Allepo for 28 years, and as soon as he (was seeing/saw) the dress Ibrahim Dudu (was getting/got) out his sewing kit and (set/was setting) to work.**
- “He literally (sewed/was sewing) her wedding dress back onto her,” Lindsay Coulter, the wedding photographer (was telling/told) CTV News.
- Everyone (was being/was) so grateful, they (were saying/said) thank you a million times.
- “Many of the bridesmaids (were being/were) from China and (were bowing/bowed) to say thanks,” (said/was saying) Lindsay Coulter, who (was posting/posted) photos and (wrote/was writing) on her facebook page, “Every weekend I take photos of people on the happiest days of their lives, and today, one man who has seen some of the worst things our world has to offer (came/was coming) to the rescue.**
- “I (was being/was) so excited and so happy,” Ibrahim Halil Dudu (was saying/said) through a translator, “I like to help Canadian people from my heart.”
- Earl Lee (called/was calling) the master tailor’s masterly repair an incredible act of kindness from a complete stranger who had only stepped foot in this country days ago.
- Immigrants and families of immigrants who (came/were coming) to Guelph from opposite ends of the world and (made/were making) new homes and look after each other.
Excellent job! If you have comments or questions, write them below and we’ll get back to you. Apply your new knowledge by scheduling a one-on-one class with LOI today!