English tenses · Uncategorized

How to Choose between Past Simple and Past Progressive and Use Them Together


Let’s start with an example: Mr Baker was talking when the Finance Director entered the room.

First of all you should notice this sentence is in the past.

I used two different past tenses in this sentence.

  1. Was talking. This is past progressive or continuous. Past progressive means a time in the past when someone was doing something for a particular stretch of time. Someone was busy doing something. For more explanation about past progressive, have a look at this article.
  2.  Entered. This is past simple. Past simple is used for anything that happened in the past: this morning, yesterday, last week, from 1990 until 2005, two thousand years ago, etc. For you to use past simple we’re not interested in describing that someone did something for a certain time or that they were busy doing this. As long as it’s in the past, you can use past simple. You can find more information about past simple here.

Past progressive and past simple have different verb forms.

Past progressive always has two verbs: the first is was/were and the second is the main verb with –ing added to it.

Past simple is with –ed when it’s a regular verb. If it’s an irregular verb (irregular means not regular), you need your list of irregular verbs because they are all different. Check out the list here if you’re not sure of your irregular past verbs. If the verb you’re looking for is not on the list, it means the verb is regular.

Long Action and Short Action

Okay, sorry for the long introduction. Now we’ll get to the actual subject of this article, which is describing situations where there is one long action and a short action, often in the same sentence.

For the long action, you use past progressive.

For the short action, you use past simple.

Got that?

A)     A long action means that someone is busy doing something / they are doing something that takes time. Here are some examples:

At 12 o’clock yesterday:

Danny was sitting on the sofa, twiddling her thumbs.

Leroy was making a salad.

The children were playing football.

B) A short action doesn’t take a lot of time:

The phone rang. This is short, because a phone doesn’t normally ring for an hour.

I made a decision. I may have thought about the issues for a long time, but the actual decision is made in an instant.

It started raining. It may rain for an hour, but the start of the rain is immediate. Note: raining is with –ing, but that does not make this past progressive. The main verb is started here and that is past simple (because of the –ed).

Combine Long and Short Actions in One Sentence

Now you want to combine long and short actions. We won’t change the verb tenses. So the long actions from A) are going to stay long, and the short actions from B) will remain short. The long actions in A) are in the past progressive and the short actions from B) are in the past simple.

So here is how we put them together:

Danny was sitting on the sofa, twiddling her thumbs, when the phone rang.

Leroy was making a salad when I made a decision.

The children were playing football when it started raining.

Two important things:

1 I can change the order of the sentence if I want to:

The phone rang when Danny was sitting on the sofa, twiddling her thumbs.

I made a decision while Leroy was making a salad.

It started raining when the children were playing football.

2 I can use when and while to indicate that something happened at the same time. I’ve heard many instances where teachers or grammar books said that you should use a particular verb tense after “when” or “while.” However, as my examples show you, you can turn the sentences around. Therefore this rule doesn’t count. The only rule you should be using is to determine (= decide) which is the longer action and which is the shorter action. For the long action use past progressive and for the short action use past simple.

Note: There are also sentences where there are two longer actions or one long action and two short ones. It doesn’t matter. Still use the same rule. Long action: past progressive. Short action: past simple.

Let’s try an Exercise. Yay!!

Use the verb between brackets (). Use past progressive or past simple.

You can do this exercise online if you follow this link.

1 The production team ____________ (work) on a new line, when the Director ___________ (decide) to cancel the project.

2 The bookkeeper ____________ (present) the annual financial reports, when he ___________ (see) a mistake in the balance sheet.

3 The R&D team ____________ (develop) a new software program, when they ____________ (think) of a creative solution.

4 Benito ____________ (wait) in front of his manager’s door, because he ___________ (hear) that she __________ (talk) on the phone.

5 I ___________ (sell) some of my stocks because their value __________ (go) down.

6 Yesterday morning when I ___________ (read) my emails, I ____________ (find) another 20 emails when I ____________ (press) refresh.

7 When the Chairwoman ____________ (walk) into the room, the Sales Director ____________ (discuss) sales trend for the following season.

8 When Clarissa ____________ (buy) the watch company, 10 experienced watchmakers ____________ (work) in it.

9 Josh ____________ (drive) to a meeting with his suppliers, when his wife _________ (call) to remind him he should buy a cake for his son’s birthday.


If you have a silver membership, you may do this Extra Quiz online as well.

Take note, some sentences may have two progressives in them, or two past simples.

1 In 2001, when Nathan __________ (study) towards his MBA, he ___________ (meet) his future wife.

2 While the guests ____________ (dance) at their wedding, their little nephews ___________ (finish) the rest of the cake.

3 It almost seemed as if Angela would deliver their baby while she __________ (ride) a taxi, but they ___________ (reach) the hospital in time.

4 While Nathan __________ (train) in his first job as a financial manager, Angela _________ (stay) at home to care for their son.

5 When they __________ (take) a break in the United States, Angela ___________ (announce) her decision to go back to work again and hire a nanny for the baby.

6 But while Angela ____________ (look) for a job, she ___________ (find) out that companies are biased against mothers.

7 While she ___________ (lament) the lack of suitable jobs, Nathan’s career _____________ (take) off.

8 His company ___________ (promote) him to VP of Finance, and at the same time Angela ___________ (discover) she was pregnant again.

9 One day when she ____________ (lie) in the bath, an idea ___________ (hit) her.

10 While her husband ___________ (move) to another company that ___________ (pay) him even better, Angela ____________ (develop) plans to set up her own company.

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