Past Progressive vs Simple Past

When it’s ideal to use past progressive tense

If you remember in the preceding entryOpens in new window we did observe that both the simple past Opens in new window and the past progressive Opens in new window can be used to show actions that happened over time in the past. Because of this, there are many cases where both tenses are appropriate to use.

Practical Examples:
Simple Past
  • While Andy studied for his history test, Lola applied her make-up.
Past Progressive
  • While Andy was studying for his history test, Lola was applying her make-up.

These two sentences mean the same thing.

Simple Past
  • Effiong practiced piano all yesterday afternoon.
Past Progressive
  • Effiong was practicing piano all yesterday afternoon.

These two sentences mean the same thing.

However, there are some cases where ONLY ONE tense is appropriate to use.

Observe the following sentences:
  • Andy drove was driving to work when his car ran out of gas.
  • When Laurel called, Victor and Gift ate were eating dinner, so they didn’t answer the phone.
  • When I packed my car out of the driveway, a red Toyota suddenly was hitting hit the rear of my car.
What's this?

Okay, so when should we use past progressive and when should we use simple past?

The rules for this are kind of complicated, so in this section, a simple rule will be introduced. If you follow this rule, you’ll write correct sentences even though there may be other correct ways to say the same thing.

The Simple Rule

Here’s the simple rule: Use past progressive for actions that were happening over time when something else happened.

If we draw a picture of this type of action, it looks like this:

Fig1. If we draw a picture of this type of action, it looks like this.

The past progressive action started first and was happening over a period of time. In the middle of the past progressive action, another action (one that happened pretty quickly) occurred.

Occasionally, instead of another action, a time phrase, like “at 10:00” or adverb phrases like “yesterday,” “at the end of the movie,” “when this happen” are often used with the past progressive tense verb.

Let's observe a few examples:
  • I was thinking about you when you called.
  • (I started to think about you first, and this action was happening over time when you called.)
  • At 10:00 last night, Bill was studying his math homework.
  • (Bill started to study first, and this action was happening over time when 10:00 clocked.)
  • While Lola was shopping, she met her friend Laurel in the organic section.
  • (Lola started shopping first, and this action was happening over time when she met Laurel.)
  • Everyone in the theater was crying at the end of the movie.
  • (Everyone started crying first, and this action was happening over time at the end of the movie.)
  • Was Andy walking down the street when the elephant bit him?
  • (I want to know if this action was happening over time when the elephant bit Andy.)

Using When and While

When we use past progressive with simple past, we can use either when or while to join the two clauses Opens in new window.

When comes at the beginning of a clause that uses simple past, and while comes at the beginning of a clause that uses past progressive.

However, either clause can come first.

See Practical Examples:
  • While Laurel was eating dinner, the cat jumped into the soup!
  • Laurel was eating dinner when the cat jumped into the soup!

And now switching clauses:

  • The cat jumped into the soup while Laurel was eating dinner!
  • When the cat jumped into the soup, Laurel was eating dinner.
  • These sentences basically mean the same thing: Laurel started eating dinner first, and this action was happening over time when the cat jumped in the soup.