1. Definition and rules
Let’s consider this example situation:
Yesterday Rick and Leo played football. They began at 09 o’clock and finished at 10.30.
So, at 09.30 they were playing football.
They were playing = ‘they were in the middle of playing’. They had not finished playing.
• We use the past continuous to talk about past actions which weren’t finished at a past time or to describe what was happening at a particular time in the past. The action or situation had already started before this time but had not finished:
What were they doing last night?
I waved to him but he wasn’t looking.
The sun was shining and a band was playing.
• We use the past simple and the past continuous together when one action interrupts another longer action in the past, that is to say, that something happened in the middle of something else:
While I was working in the field, I hurt my back.
As I was driving along, a cat ran into the road.
I saw you in the park yesterday. You were sitting on the grass and reading a book.
Lucile burnt her hand when she was cooking the dinner.
• But we use the past simple to say that one thing happened after another:
I was walking along the road when I saw Steve. So I stopped and we had a chat.
2. Past simple and past continuous
(in the middle of an action)
|When Karen arrived, we were having dinner.|
(= We had already started dinner before Karen arrived.)
|When Karen arrived, we had dinner.|
(= First Karen arrived and then we had dinner.)
|I was walking home when I met Harry. (= in the middle of walking home)||I walked home after the party last night.|
(= all the way, completely)
|Jasmine was watching television when the phone rang.||Jasmine watched television a lot when she was sick last year.|
3. Remember and note
• There are some verbs (for example, know/want/believe) that are not normally used in the past continuous:
We were good friends. We knew each other well. (not ‘we were knowing’)
I was enjoying the party but Chris wanted to go home. (not ‘was wanting’)
4. Quiz and exercises
Test your knowledge now by passing this test from here:
You can work on other exercises in your spare time to consolidate your knowledge about the topic.