Simple Past or Past Progressive – English Tense ComparisonJust here for the exercises? Click here.
Simple past vs. past progressive
The simple past and the past progressive, also past continuous, are used to express actions in the past, however each has a different function.
The simple past expresses completed, sequential actions in the past and is therefore the main narrative form.
The past progressive expresses actions that were in progress at a specific point in the past; this tense establishes background and sets the scene.
Learn the difference between the simple past and the past progressive in English grammar with Lingolia, then practise using them in the interactive exercises.
I spent my holidays in Wales last year. I travelled around by bike. Every morning I got up early, set off on my bike, 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 on the beach.
But one day, when I was talking to a farmer in a village, my mobile rang. My friends were calling to tell me that they were waiting under a bus stop because it was raining so heavily at the seaside!
When to use the simple past and past progressive
The chart below provides an overview of the differences between the English simple past and past progressive.
|Simple Past||Past Progressive|
narrative tense to describe actions that take place one after another
to describe two actions which are taking place simultaneously
to describe an action which interrupts a second action
to set the scene/describe an action already in progress in the past
to talk about completed actions
to emphasise that an action or state continued for a longer time in the past
Signal words: simple past vs. past progressive
Signal words can help us to recognise which tense to use in a sentence. Below is a list of signal words for the simple past and past progressive tenses.
|Simple Past||Past Progressive|
|Signal Word||Example||Signal Word||Example|
|when||I was cycling on the road when the rain started.||when||When I was cycling I saw the most beautiful sunset.|
|then||Then I unlocked my bike and set off.||while||While I was cycling my friends were hiding from the rain.|
|first||First I put on my trainers.|
|suddenly||I was taking a break and suddenly I heard a loud crash.|
Verbs that are not used in the progressive form
The following verbs are not generally used in a progressive form.
- stative verbs
be*, cost, fit, mean, remain, suit
- The weather was awful.
- verbs that indicate possession/belonging
- I didn’t have a lot of luggage.
- verbs of sensory perception
feel*, hear, see*, smell*, taste*, touch
- I saw many villages.
- verbs that express feelings
hate, hope, like, love, prefer, regret, want, wish
- My friends preferred to spend their holidays by the sea.
- verbs of thought and recognition
believe, know, realise, recognise, seem, think*, understand
- I thought they would be sitting at the beach all day.
- clauses accompanying direct speech
answer, ask, reply, say
- “We are spending all day inside,” my friends said.
*change of meaning
Some stative verbs also have a progressive form, but the meaning of the progressive form is sightly different.
|stative form||progressive form|
|be||state||The weather was wonderful.||deliberate behaviour||He was being silly.|
|have||possession||He had a red bicycle.||in particular expressions||He was having a good time.|
|feel||opinion||I felt it was a great day at the beach.||feel (health)||He wasn’t feeling well.|
|feel (sense)||It felt like it was going to rain.||touch||I was feeling the warm sand between my toes.|
|sight||I saw my friends at the beach.||be together with somebody||Nigel and Beatrice were seeing each other.|
|understand||I saw your point of view.||have an appointment, meeting||I was seeing my friends that afternoon.|
It smelt like rain.
|smell something (action)||Why were you smelling your bicycle?|
|taste||sense, quality of food/drink||
The ice-cream tasted delicious.
|try, test (action)||I was tasting the ice-cream to see if it’d been poisoned.|
|think||believe||I thought it was going to be hot that day.||contemplate||What were you thinking about?|
Learn more about the progressive aspect with Lingolia’s visual tense timeline.