Yellow Level

Lesson Nine:

Past Tense vs. Past Continuous Tense

Past tense: I went to work yesterday. (main verb: go)

Past tense negative: I didn’t go to work on Sunday. (main verb: go)

Past continuous tense: I was eating my breakfast when the phone rang. (main verb: eat)

Past continuous tense negative: I wasn’t eating anything when the phone rang. (main verb: eat)

The past continuous tense is often used when talking about one or more past actions that happen at the same time. Here are some examples:

  • While I was sleeping, someone broke into my car and stole it.
  • Sarah’s phone rang just as she was walking into the classroom.
  • John was sitting at his desk when he suddenly noticed there was a dead mouse on the floor.


boy playing in sand

What was the boy doing at the park?

He was making sand castles.

The boy was making sand castles while playing in the sand.

This boy made sand castles while he was playing in the sand.


As you can see below, the past tense is an alternative to the past continuous tense:

I was drinking coffee while I was working on my computer.

sounds better than…

I drank my coffee when I worked on my computer

....because there’s some activity.

teacher drinking coffee

You were taking English classes when you visited the United States.


You took English classes when you visited the United States.

(Both verb tenses are okay)


He was talking on his cell phone while he was walking to work.


While he was walking to work, he was talking on his cell phone.

(Many sentences that use “while” are continuous)

Past tense:

He talked on the phone an hour ago.

businessman on the phone

She was talking on the phone while she was drinking coffee.


She was talking on the phone while drinking coffee.

(Notice “she” is missing from the second sentence. That’s okay.)

woman on cell phone

It was snowing when this man went out to shovel his driveway.

(“It” refers to the weather.)


We were standing in my classroom when this picture was taken.

(“was taken” is passive voice–not continuous. Notice the difference?)

miho and teacher
You were riding on the bus.
They were riding their bikes through downtown Minneapolis.
biking in Minneapolis

Click here for a quiz.