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When we are speaking about the past, it is quite often that we are able to use both the past continuous and the past simple in the same sentence. This is usually when there was one action happening when a different action interrupted it or crossed over it. For example –

~ I was walking home when I met my friend Alex.
As you can see, the first action (walking) is in the past continuous, while the second action (met) is in the past simple. This kind of sentence is usually made up of a main clause and a time clause. The second action will often be in the time clause. Let’s look at another one –

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~ Steve was playing a video game while his mother was making dinner.
Now this one is a little different. We have two actions here (playing and making) and they are both in the past continuous. We can do this because both actions were happening concurrently with each other. We indicate this by using the word “while”. Another example of this –

~ My father was working while I was learning things at school.
Again you have two actions that were happening at the exact same time and continued. This is a very useful way of talking about two parallel actions. Now, let’s try a different kind of sentence.

~ My phone rang when I was having a shower, so I missed the call.
In this sentence you have the past simple being stated first, in the main clause of the sentence and the past continuous is part of the time clause. So, it is possible to have the past simple in the sentence before the past continuous, but it is not always the most common way of talking about these kinds of actions.

Always be careful when you are using this type of sentence. You have to decide which is your continuous action and which is the interrupting action. This can sometimes be confusing to the listener or reader if you accidentally mix up the two actions. Or, it can also be a case of both actions are in the continuous because they were both happening at the same time.

This takes practice and a little bit of trial and error. But hopefully you will start to get the hang of it the more you practice. For some extra practice, have a try with our question and answer exercise. This will help you to see the errors and pitfalls you may encounter.


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Kym Charles
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