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Past Simple or Past Continuous?

There are moments when we can use either the Past Simple or Past Continuous.

The Past Continuous and the Past Simple can show us how two past actions are connected. We can use the two tenses together to demonstrate which action was in progress when another action happened. This is discuused here

Below are guidelines on when the Past Simple or the Past Continuous are more appropriate.

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When to use different grammar

English does not always have concrete rules to tell you when to use different grammar structures. Somethimes it is just as important for you to think about what it is you wnt to say:

  • Emphasis

There  is frequently no difference between the past simple or past continuous.  Because the past continuous is often used to demonstrate an action or  event is in progress when something else is happening we can chose to  use the past simple or past continuous to emphasise which event or  action we consider more significant.

This is often described as the main and background event and is dicussed here

But sometimes the emphasis is about what the speaker or the writer wants people to focus on. Do we want a reader to consider events as ongoing actions or as part of a completed story?


People were starting to panic and the Officers were trying to load the women and children onto the lifeboats


People started to panic and the Officers tried to load the women and children onto the lifeboats

In the first example the text is demonstrating the events were ongoing at a moment in the past using the Past Continuous where in the second example the use of the Past Simple is demonstrating the actions are finished

  • Completed/Incomplete Events

As  we know, the Past Continuous is used to describe actions in progress at  a moment in the past and the Past Simple is used to describe completed  actions. This should always be remembered when considering whether to  use the Simple or Continuous.


At 11.40pm she was sleeping in her cabin


At 11.40pm she woke up and went outside

In the first example the past continuous emphasises the action was in progress at 11.40pm, where the second example uses the Past Simple to focus on competed events that happened at 11.40pm. The focus is not on actions in progress but the series of actions that are competed

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