Simple Past - Past Progressive

Introduction

The simple past and the past progressive are used to express actions in the past. We use the simple past as the narrative form for the past. If we want to emphasise the process or progression of a past action, we use the past progressive.

Example

Last year, I spent my holidays in Wales. I was travelling around by bike. Every morning I took my bike, cycled for some time, visited the villages on the way and talked to people.

My friends preferred to spend their holidays by the sea. So while I was cycling, my friends were probably sitting at the beach.

But one day, when I was talking to a farmer in a village, my mobile rang. My friends were phoning to tell me how awful the weather was by the sea. They were spending all day inside.

Usage

Simple PastPast Progressive

sequentially occurring actions

Example:
Every morning I took my bike, cycled for some time, visited the villages on the way and talked to people.

simultaneously occurring actions

Example:
While I was cycling, my friends were probably sitting at the beach.

newly starting action

Example:
When I was talking to a farmer in a village, my mobile suddenly rang.

already started action

Example:
When I was talking to a farmer in a village, my mobile suddenly rang.

merely mentioning that an action took place

Example:
I spent my holidays in Wales.

emphasising the process or progression of the action

Example:
They were spending all day inside.
My friends were phoning.

Signal Words

Simple PastPast Progressive
  • first
  • then
  • when
  • while
  • as long as

Verbs that are not used in the progressive form

The following verbs are generally only used in the simple form, even if they take place at the moment of speaking.

  • stative verbs
    be, cost, fit, mean, remain, suit
    Example:
    The weather was awful.
  • verbs that indicate possession/belonging
    belong, have
    Example:
    I didn’t have a lot of luggage.
  • verbs of sensory perception
    feel, hear, see, smell, taste, touch
    Example:
    I saw many villages.
  • verbs that express feelings
    hate, hope, like, love, prefer, regret, want, wish
    Example:
    My friends preferred to spend their holidays by the sea.
  • verbs of thought and recognition
    believe, know, realise, recognise, seem, think, understand
    Example:
    I thought they would be sitting at the beach all day.
  • clauses accompanying direct speech
    answer, ask, reply, say
    Example:
    “We are spending all day inside,” my friends said.

Construction

For information on the construction of these two tenses, see:

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