Today let’s learn about the uses of the two main past tenses in English, the past simple and the past continuous.
Firstly, it’s important to revise how to form these two tenses. The past simple for all subjects is formed by adding –ed to the end of regular verbs (play à played), or –d to the end of regular verbs ending in ‘e’ (save à saved). There is no rule for irregular verbs and, unfortunately, you will just have to learn the second column in the English verb tables. However, to form negative sentences or questions you need to use “did” as an auxiliary verb and the main verb is in the base form (infinitive without to). For example, “Did he play football?” “No, he didn’t play football.”
- Positive: Subject + Verb (past simple)
- Negative: Subject + Didn’t + Verb (infinitive without to)
- Question: Did + Subject + Verb (infinitive without to)
The past continuous needs the auxiliary verb “to be” in the past simple as well as using the –ing form of the main verb. “To be” conjugates to was or were in the past tense and the use of these two words depends on the subject. For example, I was playing, you were playing etc.
- Positive: Subject + Was/Were + Verb (-ing)
- Negative: Subject + Wasn’t/Weren’t + Verb (-ing)
- Question: Was/Were + Subject + Verb (-ing)
The past simple is used to talk about completed actions in the past, at or within specific time. This time could be stated (Yesterday, I played football), or understood from the context (“What did you do on Saturday?” “I played football”).
The past continuous is used to talk about an action that was in progress at a specific point in the past (at 11 o’clock, I was playing football).
Using WHEN and WHILE with the Past Simple and Past Continuous
If you want to talk about two actions occurring at the same time in the past you need to either use when or while. Commonly, while is used to show two simultaneous actions that were in progress in the past. As both actions were in progress in the past, you need to use the past continuous tense to express this.
I was listening to music while I was doing my homework.
In contrast, when is commonly used to show one action interrupting another action in the past. It is also used when there are two past actions, one of which happened at a point in time and the other action was in progress. The action doing the interrupting, or the action that happened at a point in time is put in the past simple form. The longer action is put in the past continuous to show it started before, and continued after, the second action.
I was watching TV when the phone rang.
I was travelling to Madrid when I met him.