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Verb tense – Past simple or continuous? (Vietnamese summary included)

Verb tense – Past simple or continuous? (Vietnamese summary included)

Monday, October 17, 2011, 08:20 GMT+7

Dr. Grammar says:

“What’s wrong with this sentence? I watched the television when someone came to the door and was knocking.”


We looked at present simple and present continuous in the previous lesson. Now, we will look at the same tenses in the past: past simple and past continuous.

Past simple and past continuous are two very common verb tenses. Being able to use them correctly, and knowing when to use them, is very important.

How do we make them?

Past simple

It is important to know whether a verb is regular or irregular when using the V2 (past form) of a verb. To find this out, look in any good dictionary, or do a Google search.

Regular verbs form V2 by adding “ed”. For example:

watch > watched

jump > jumped

Regular verbs ending in “e” just have “d” added. For example:

move > moved

agree > agreed

Some regular verbs double the final letter before adding “ed”. For example:

stop > stopped

rub > rubbed

Irregular verbs need to be learnt individually. For example:

eat > ate

catch > caught

learn > learnt


Subject + V2 + (object, adjunct etc)

e.g. They ate lunch.

        They watched a movie.


Subject + did not + V1 + (object, adjunct etc)

e.g. They did not (didn’t) eat lunch.

        They didn’t watch a movie.


Was/Were + subject + V2 + (object, adjunct etc) = when the verb is be

e.g. Were you at school today?

        Was she at school today?

Did + subject + V1 + (object, adjunct etc) = when the verb is not be

e.g. Did you eat lunch yet?

       Did you watch a movie?

Past continuousPositive

Subject + was/were + Verb-ing + (object, adjunct etc)

e.g. They were eating lunch.

        She was eating lunch.


Subject + was/were + not + Verb-ing + (object, adjunct etc)

e.g. They were not eating lunch.

        She was not eating lunch.


Was/Were + subject + Verb-ing + (object, adjunct etc)

e.g. Were you eating lunch?

       Was she eating lunch?

When do we use the simple past?

The simple past has only two main uses:

1. In stories and descriptions in the past (narratives and recounts).

She had lunch and then went back to work.

= First lunch, then work, but in the past.

These are the main events in the story; the things that happened.

My motorbike was black and red and it had a very comfortable seat.

= A descriptive of my motorbike, but in the past, so I don’t have it any more.

2. With finished times.

Last week they met each other at a coffee shop.

Yesterday she took her IELTS test.

Ten years ago I lived in Australia.

When do we use the past continuous?

The past continuous is used to talk about actions which were in progress (going on) at a time in the past.

Q: What were you doing this morning at 10am?

A: I was sleeping. I was very tired from the party last night.

= At 10am, she was in bed. Before 10am, and after 10am, she was also asleep.

I was washing my hair last night when there was a power cut.

= Before the power cut, and when it happened, I was in the shower and washing my hair.

This (‘I was washing my hair’) is a background event; an action that was ongoing when the main event (‘there was a power cut’) occurred. We will look at this in more detail below.

Can we use these tenses in the same sentence/text?

Yes! The past continuous is often used in the same sentence as the past simple to show a background action (what was in progress) at the time of another action:

They were driving along a dark street when suddenly a man stepped in front of the car while he was crossing the road.

= The important action is that “a man stepped in front of the car”, and this happened while “they were driving” and “he was crossing the road”. This tells us the background; it describes the situation at the time when he stepped in front of the car.

As I was studying for my exam yesterday morning, there was a knock at the door.

= Before the knock at the door, probably for a long time, I was studying, This is the long action in the background.

How can we learn to use these tenses?

By doing the exercises below!


I watched the television when someone came to the door and was knocking. X

I was watching the television when someone came to the door and knocked. √

(The long action is watching TV, this is the background. Then someone came and knocked, both short actions.)


Choose whether the verbs in brackets should be in the past simple or the past continuous.

1. Yesterday I ………………. (be) very busy. I ………………. (go) to the supermarket, then I ………………. (have) lunch with a friend. 2. They ………………. (eat) lunch when there ……………….(be) a loud BANG from the kitchen. They ………………. (run) into the kitchen and ………………. (see) that the oven ………………. (burn).

3. Ten years ago, my best friend ………………. (live) in Vietnam. However, he ………………. (leave) and ………………. (go) to England to teach English. While he ………………. (teach) in England, he ………………. (meet) a beautiful Vietnamese girl, so he ………………. (move) back to Vietnam again yesterday!


1. Yesterday I was very busy. I went to the supermarket, then I had lunch with a friend. 2. They were eating lunch when there was a loud BANG from the kitchen. They ran into the kitchen and saw that the oven was burning.

3. Ten years ago, my best friend was living* in Vietnam. However, he left and went to England to teach English. While he was teaching in England, he met a beautiful Vietnamese girl, so he moved back to Vietnam again yesterday!

* Lived would also be possible here. Was living suggests a temporary situation or emphasises that point of time (10 years ago). Lived suggests a more permanent situation.

FURTHER PRACTICE: Find some stories written in the past (short stories, newspaper stories, anything written in the past!) and look for sentences which have both the past simple and past continuous.

Does the sentence follow the rules we have studied today?

Which verb is showing the background action, which one is the main action?

When you are confident that you understand the two tenses, write your own story about anything from your past. Show it to a friend and have them correct it for you.


Try to read and understand the lesson in English first. Just use the Vietnamese summary to check your understanding if you are unsure.


I. Cách thành lập: (như trên)

II. Cách sử dụng: (ví dụ xem trên)

a. Thì Quá khứ đơn được sử dụng:

1. Trong văn kể chuyện hoặc tường thuật/mô tả lại một sự việc xảy ra trong quá khứ.

2. Với từ/ngữ chỉ thời gian quá khứ xác định và đã chấm dứt.

b. Thì Quá khứ tiếp diễn được sử dụng cho những hành động/sự việc đang diễn ra tại một thời điểm quá khứ xác định nào đó.

III. Lưu ý:

Trong văn kể chuyện, cả hai thì Quá khứ đơn và Quá khứ tiếp diễn đều có thể được sử dụng trong cùng một câu khi một động từ trong câu mô tả bối cảnh, tình huống của câu chuyện (Quá khứ tiếp diễn) và động từ còn lại chỉ sự kiện/hành động chính xảy ra (Quá khứ đơn).

This material is provided by the Australian Centre for Education and Training (ACET).






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