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Natives & Tenses: Chapter 5 The Past Simple and Past Continuous

[All information copyrighted to EnglishAdam.com]

Part 5: The Past Simple and Past Continuous
Let's recap the ASPECTS!
(go back to PART 1 if you are unsure here)

The SIMPLE Aspect focuses on...

...facts, permanent, results, events, perhaps it is like a photo, perhaps it is 'normal' or 'no particular emphasis' as in 'SIMPLE'...

Click me!

The CONTINUOUS Aspect focuses on...

...perhaps temporary, actiivty, happening, not permanent,... perhaps it is like a video of the action in some cases.

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This difference can often be easily seen using the PAST SIMPLE AND PAST CONTINUOUS.
Explain the sentence:
I was driving when she called.

So the person was in the middle of an activity (driving) when another action interrupted it, the phone call.

Click me!

What would be the changes in focus between these two sentences?
A) I cooked dinner while she slept.
B) I was cooking dinner while she was sleeping.
C) I cooked dinner while she was sleeping.
D) I was cooking dinner while she slept.

The actions ARE ALL THE SAME, so where is the emphasis in Sentence A?

I think here we focus on two things that 'got done'. I finished the preparation of dinner, and what did she do? She had a rest.
Perhaps the emphasis is on two facts, two results, two things completed.

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B) I was cooking dinner while she was sleeping.
The actions ARE ALL THE SAME, so where is the emphasis in Sentence B?

I think perhaps this is the easiest to imagine. I was doing this activity at the same time she was doing the other activity.
We can imagine this scene happening at a particular moment, eg 'When you rang I was cooking dinner...'

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C) I cooked dinner while she was sleeping.
The actions ARE ALL THE SAME, so where is the emphasis in Sentence C?

Here we stress something I completed while someone else was doing else. The emphasis might be 'looked what I was able to do in that time!'.
It probably also comunicates the idea that the dinner was completely finished before she even woke up!

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D) I was cooking dinner while she slept.
The actions ARE ALL THE SAME, so where is the emphasis in Sentence D?

This sentence is possibly the most difficult to explain in terms of ACTIONS,
however we use aspects to focus the listener.
So where is the focus here?
Well, using the SIMPLE does indeed SIMPLIFY what she was doing.
She simply slept. She just did that.
While I with the CONTINUOUS was doing an ACTIVITY!
You can imagine me ACTIVE.
So I am making you appreciate how much I had to do, while she just slept.
We look at this type of focus in more detail when we compare the Present Perfect Simple and the Present Perfect Continuous in PART 7.

Click me!

Which tense do we use for single long actions in the PAST?

Well, it is possible to use either the PAST CONTINUOUS or the PAST SIMPLE for long actions in the PAST.

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Consider the difference between these two sentences:
I was living in London as a student.
I lived in London as a student
What might be the difference between these sentences?
Firstly, are the two actions different?

NO! Verbs describe actions, tenses describe TIME, and these are the same verb (live) in the same Tense (Past).

Click me!

So how does the choice of Aspect change the emphasis?

Well I think a probable interpretation for the SIMPLE would be that the speaker just wants to communicate a fact.
An answer to the question... Where did you live when you were a student?
And a probable interpretation for using the CONTINUOUS would be to focus on the activity of living, rather than the fact of lived.
And what is the activity of living? Perhaps, 'lifestyle'.
So possibly the sentence could be used as follows:
"I was living in London as a student and so I didn't have much money but I had plenty of time - this meant that I decided to..."

Click me!

[Sourced: EnglishAdam.com]

Test Your Knowledge!


Which tense do we use for single long actions in the PAST?

Theory Test

Click to show


Well, it is possible to use either


Click to show


No specific notes on this question yet, sorry.



Practice Your Knowledge!

Cards coming soon!


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