Past Progressive vs. Simple Past

1. The past progressive is used to describe an action that was in progress (happening) at a specific time in the past.

A: What were you doing at 6 p.m. last Friday?
B: I was watching TV.

past progressive diagram 1

1a. The simple past, on the other hand, is used to describe a completed action at a specific time in the past.

I went to bed at 10 p.m. last night.

past progressive diagram 2

2. The past progressive is used to describe an action that was interrupted by another action. The action that interrupts is in the simple past. Use while with the action in the past progressive or when with the action in the simple past. The choice of while or when depends on what you want to emphasize. While emphasizes the action in progress (the background action) and when emphasizes the interrupting action. Also, the clause at the beginning of the sentence is the more emphatic.

If the clause with while or when comes at the beginning of the sentence, put a comma after the clause.

Professor Tanaka was correcting papers when the bell rang.
When the bell rang, Professor Tanaka was correcting papers.

OR

The bell rang while Professor Tanaka was correcting papers.
While Professor Tanaka was correcting papers, the bell rang.

past progressive diagram 3

3. The past progressive is used in both clauses with while or when to describe two simultaneous actions in the past.

Professor Tanaka was correcting papers while the students were taking the exam.
While the students were taking the exam, Professor Tanaka was correcting papers.

past progressive diagram 4

4. The simple past is used in both clauses with when to indicate that one action was the result of another (cause and effect). The clause with when indicates the cause.

When the bell rang, the students handed in their papers.
The students handed in their papers when the bell rang.

past progressive diagram 5

6. The past progressive describes temporary states, whereas the simple past describes permanent states. For example:

He taught at Harvard for thirty-five years. (permanent situation)
He was teaching at Yale during the fifties. (temporary situation)
He was teaching at Yale when I met him. (temporary situation)

7. The past progressive describes incomplete actions, whereas the simple past describes complete actions.

I was reading a book last night. (I didn't finish the book--incomplete.)
I read a book last night. (I finished the book--complete.)

8. The past progressive indicates that the action was in progress (happening) during the whole period mentioned in the time expression.

I was working on my term paper yesterday. (the whole day)
It was raining yesterday. (all day long)

8a. The simple past, on the other hand, indicates that the action was completed in the time period mentioned.

I worked on my term paper yesterday. (probably not the whole day)
It rained yesterday. (only part of the day)

Click here to practice the past progressive.

Back to Grammar Page

This page was last modified on 06/15/10

Free web hostingWeb hosting