Simple Past or Past Progressive – English Tense Comparison

Introduction

The simple past and the past progressive, also past continuous, are used to express actions in the past. We use the simple past as the narrative form of the past to express completed, sequential actions. We use the past progressive to say what was happening at a particular moment in the past, to set the scene and to emphasise the process or duration of a past action.

Learn the difference between the simple past and the past progressive in English grammar with Lingolia grammar rules. Then test your understanding in the exercises.

Example

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 phoning to tell me how awful the weather was at the seaside.

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Usage

The chart below provides an overview of the differences between the English simple past and past progressive, also past continuous, tenses.

Simple PastPast Progressive

narrative tense to describe actions that take place one after another

Example:
Every morning I got up early, set off on my bike, visited the villages along the way and talked to people.

to describe two actions which are taking place simultaneously

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

to describe an action which interrupts a second action

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

to set the scene/ describe an action taking place in the background

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

to mention that an action took place

Example:
I spent my holidays in Wales.

to emphasise the process or durations of an action

Example:
My friends were phoning to tell me …

Signal Words

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

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
    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.

*exceptions

Some stative verbs also have a progressive form, but the meaning of the progressive form is sightly different.

stative formprogressive form
verbmeaningexamplemeaningexample
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.

see

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.
smell smell (sense)

It smelt like rain.

smell something (action) Why were you smelling your bicycle?
taste schmecken (sense)

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?

Conjugation

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