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Grammar Reference

Past simple and past continuous

Meaning and use

We use the past simple for something that happened and finished in the past. We use it when we say or know the time when something happened. It is often used in stories, when one thing happened after another.

Last year, we travelled by jeep across the Sahara.

When the car stopped, we all got out.


We use the past continuous for something that happened in the past but was not finished at a particular time. This can be an exact time in the past (12 o’clock, etc.) or the time when another thing happened.

It was 12 o’clock and we were standing in the midday sun.

Mick was checking the engine when the rescue helicopter arrived.


We also use the past continuous to describe a scene or situation in the past or for an action that continued for some time.

The stars were beginning to come out.

The dog was barking loudly.




Past simple: positive

For regular verbs, the past simple ends in -ed. Irregular verbs have different forms. The past simple form is the same for all persons (I, you, he, she, etc).

Suddenly the jeep skidded and stopped.

Jake thought that we had a puncture.


Past continuous: positive

The past continuous is subject + was/were + -ing form. There are no short forms of was/were.


Fortunately, we were carrying a toolkit.


Past simple: negative
We make the negative past simple with didn’t + infinitive.

We didn’t stay inside the jeep because that was even hotter.


Past continuous: negative
We make the negative past continuous with wasn’t/weren’t + -ing form

Despite the heat, Jess and Debs weren’t wearing hats.

Past simple: question

The past simple question form is did + subject + infinitive for all persons. The short answers are Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.

Did the helicopter land in the desert? Yes it did.


Past continuous: question

The past continuous question form is was/were + subject + -ing form. The short answers are Yes, I was. / No, I wasn’t.

How were you feeling when it arrived?


Take note: spelling changes

In the past continuous, all verbs end in -ing, but sometimes the spelling changes:

take – taking   hit – hitting   die – dying     


Take note: verbs we don’t use in the past continuous

There are some verbs that we don’t usually use in the continuous form. They are often verbs related to the senses and thinking, for example: hear, see, smell, hate, know, understand, believe, notice, want, need, seem, wish.

WRONG: Were you knowing Jess when you were living in Madrid?


CORRECT: Did you know Jess when you were living in Madrid?


Spoken English

In the past simple and the past continuous, we usually use a contraction with the negative auxiliary verb:

didn’t (= did not) wasn’t (= was not)


We usually say the positive and negative auxiliary verbs quickly and without emphasis. We don’t usually pronounce the final ‘t’ in ‘didn’t’, ‘wasn’t’ or ‘weren’t’ in the flow of speech.

 He wasn’t looking when his team scored a goal.

/hi wɒzn ˈlʊkɪŋ wɛn hɪz tiːm skɔːd ə gəʊl/


But when the word following the contraction begins with a vowel sound, we pronounce the final ‘t’:

They were delayed, so they didn’t arrive on time.

/ðeɪ wə dɪˈleɪdsəʊ ðeɪ  dɪdnt əˈraɪv ɒn taɪm/