Comparison of the past simple and the past continuous

(Difference of the simple and continuous form of the past)

Table of contents – comparison past simple & past progressive

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Typical characteristics past simple vs. continuous
  2. Key words past simple and past continuous
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What characteristics are typical for the past simple and the past continuous?

Although the two different tenses past simple (take a look at the explanation) and the past progressive or continuous (explanation here) are both ways to express the past in English, they describe the action or the event that took place in the past in different ways. Depending on the point the speaker wants to emphasise, such an event can be in the simple or in the continuous form. It is not possible to exchange them randomly. Compare the following details in the table:

Comparison with peculiarities of regular and irregular verbs

Past simple Past progressive
  • was doing(I, he, she, it)
  • were doing(we, you, they)
  • All main verbs end with ‘-ing’.
  • A fixed point in time is not mentioned (unless it is an action that took place for a very short time).
  • An action is happening (ongoing) at a certain (fixed) point in time in the past.
  • If the statement contains a number of actions, they took place one after the other (consecutively).
  • In case of more than one action, they were happening at the same time.
  • Habits and regular actions in the past
  • Habits are not expressed as only one action can be described.

What are the key words for both tenses (past simple and continuous)?

As both tenses took place in the past, you always have to consider all the key words for past tenses in general. It is important to think about the fact if the process was ongoing at a certain point in time or not. Generally the following rules apply:

Key words indicating the past simple and the past continuous

Past simple Past progressive/continuous
Time: rather indefinite (vague) Time: definite


  • yesterday
  • last Monday
  • on 16th May


  • at 6 o’clock yesterday morning
  • when Jill came in

Further explanations related to the topic ‘Past simple vs. past progressive’

The following explanations are related to the ‘Comparison of the past simple and the past continuous’ and can be helpful: