English Lessons for Experts: Past Simple & Continuous

I’ve decided to continue looking at some of the basic aspects of the English language, as I began before. From now on it’ll be a little different, as I won’t go into much detail about what a lesson might look like, mainly because the principles remain largely the same. If you’re a native speaker, you might find this enlightening, and if not, it might be a useful refresher of things you’ve already learned. Before looking at some of the main past tenses, let’s have a quick recap of the present simple and continuous, which I looked at before, but not in much detail:

Present Simple:

  • formed by using the present simple form of the verb, which only needs to be conjugated in the 3rd person singular by adding -(e)s, e.g. I go, He goes etc.
  • mainly used to refer to routines, habits, feelings, states, and general truths.
  • examples: I work in a shop. He’s hungry. Water boils at 100ºC. She usually drives to work.

Present Continuous:

  • formed by using a present form of the verb to be as an auxiliary verb, followed by the present participle form of a verb (-ing)
  • also known as the present progressive
  • refers to actions in progress at a particular moment in the present, or current activities and temporary states
  • examples: I’m working in our other branch today. The kettle is boiling. She’s taking the train to work today. I can’t talk, I’m driving.

Issues for Learners:

  • The persistent present: the simplicity of the present simple makes it very easy to use all the time, which is compounded by the fact that one can usually get one’s meaning across with it. Many non-native speakers will use the present simple in place of the present continuous, e.g. Normally she drives to work, but today she takes the train. This can be due to the fact that many other languages don’t make a distinction between the continuous and simple aspects of the present, and use a structure similar to the present simple for all references to the present.
  • The present simple may also be used to refer to the past or future, again because of the lack of a need to change the form of the verb (except for the third-person S), perhaps because a similar structure is possible in their native tongue, and because their meaning can still be understood with appropriate time markers, e.g. I go shopping yesterday afternoon.
  • Forgetting the S on third-person singular verbs: understandable because it’s hard to notice, and because it’s the only slight conjugation required by the present simple, making it easy to forget, unlike languages which require unique conjugations of a verb for each person.
  • Forgetting the auxiliary to be in the present continuous, e.g. I going shopping now. Largely because of how hard it is to hear due to the fact that native speakers normally contract it.
  • Using the present continuous to refer to feelings. Generally, we use stative verbs (which cannot be used in a continuous form) to refer to states, emotions and mental activities (e.g. I want that. I think it’s ok. I love her.), regardless of whether they are temporary or long term (e.g. I’m wanting that is not correct). Common to an extent with inform native-speaker speech, e.g. I’m liking/loving that.

Past Simple & Continuous:

Now that you know about the present simple and continuous, you might be able to figure out what the past simple and continuous look like. Try to guess, then look at the text below, which has the past simple in bold, and the past continuous in italics:

While I was walking to work yesterday I saw my friend John. He was talking on his phone, so I didn’t talk to him. When I arrived at the office at 9am, a police officer was talking to the receptionist. When he left, I asked her what the conversation had been about, and she told me that he had been looking for a bathroom.

That’s pretty basic, but should give you an idea of how both work.

Past Simple:

  • Formed by using the past simple form of a verb. In the case of regular verbs, this simply involved adding -(e)d, e.g. arrived, asked. English however, contains many irregular verbs, e.g. saw, left, told.
  • used to refer to completed past actions, activities, or states, with no direct link to the present.
  • the most common form used to refer to the past. Most of the time you refer to the past you use the past simple. Most works of fiction are predominantly composed of past simple sentences.

Past Continuous:

  • formed by using the appropriate past form of the verb to be as an auxiliary verb (was/were), followed by the present participle form of the main verb.
  • used to refer to actions in progress at a particular point in time, e.g. He was talking on his phone (when I saw him).
  • Usually used in combination with a past simple phrase which either refers to an action which interrupts the action in progress, or occurs while the action in progress takes place in the background.
  • Often used to begin a story or anecdote to set the scene, e.g. I was walking to work yesterday when I saw my friend John. Or, It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Issues for learners:

  • using the past simple for momentary of very short actions, and the past continuous for actions lasting for extended periods of time. Mainly caused by the name past continuous, which makes learners think the tense must refer to continuous activities. There is some element of truth to this, because it refers to actions which began before a specific point in the past, were in progress at that point, and perhaps continued after that point (e.g. When I arrived at the office at 9am, a police officer was talking to the receptionist). However, the past continuous involves looking at the action only during this specific moment: we’re not concerned with how long it was. Think of it like taking a snapshot of the past. Calling it the past progressive also perhaps makes more sense, but one needs to be aware of which term learners are used to.
  • using the past simple only to refer to relatively recent past events. Some languages such as Spanish use different past forms depending on how recent an action was. Speakers of these languages might use another form such as the past perfect simple to refer to historical events. English however, uses the past simple regardless of age and duration, e.g. Dinosaurs lived for millions of years. Dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. I got home five minutes ago.
  • Overuse of either tense: this is more common with the past simple due to its simple structure, but German speakers can overuse the past continuous at times. Confusion can also be caused by different structures with different meanings in one’s native tongue. Not usually much of an issue, but meaning can become confused. Consider: I was having dinner when you called me (i.e. I started eating at 8, you called me at 8.10, we talked for a few minutes, then I continued eating and finished at 8.25), and I had dinner when you called me (i.e. I waited for you to call me before I ate, I ate for the duration of our conversation, and stopped eating when we stopped speaking).

If you’re a native speaker there’s probably nothing surprising in how we use these tenses, but it’s useful to put a name to the structures we use all the time, and to see have a look at the machinery doing all the work under the surface. These four tenses are fairly straightforward, but in a week or two I’ll look at the future, which gets a little more complex.

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