Please consider the following sentences:

  1. I worked in China last year.= simple past

  2. I was working in China last year.=past continuous.

As I understand it, the simple past is used to describe an action that started and ended at specific times. Since it started at point A and ended at point Z then isn't the intervening time between A and Z continuous? In which case, how would a learner know which of the two sentences to use since they both appear to serve the same function.

I've noticed that some books, including Michael Swann's Practical English usage book, suggest that simple past is used to indicate a short duration whereas a continuous form is used to imply a longer period of time. I personally cant see this.

Any thoughts?

3 Answers 3


There is a very suggestive explanation here that would perfectly illustrate the image of both situations you presented:

You can think of working as a video. You see the movement. You see the time passing. Think of worked as a photo. It is one point of time. You don't think of the time passing.

Consequently, although both sentences are correct they have different meanings though.


Simple past is used for an action that happened in the past that has already finished. It has an air of finality to it that would suggest that nothing follows this action. Of course, I'm not saying nothing did happen, but it is somewhat implied.

Continuous past is used to follow up an action in the past with another. It is used often in storytelling to involve you in the story.

Compare the two dialogs below.

Dialog 1:

Friend 1: "So what did you do this weekend?"
Friend 2: "I went to Philadelphia. I got a cheese steak sandwich. I met a guy I knew when I was in high school."

Dialog 2:

Friend 1: "So what did you do this weekend?"
Friend 2: "I went to Philadelpha. I was getting this cheese steak sandwich when a guy I knew in high school shows up!"

The first one is somewhat cold and doesn't lend itself to follow-up questions. The second one uses continuous past to paint a picture of the situation and then follows up with simple past. Both ultimately say very similar things, but the difference in tone and mood are radically diverse.

Continuous past can also be used to talk about something you did over a period of time. In other words you wouldn't use it to say that you were going to the bathroom on May 16th, 2005, but you might say you were studying in China over a period of 5 years.

  • Thank you for your answer. I can see that some context helps here.. I volunteer with someone who is learning English and he still cant see the difference between the two tenses as I've presented them here.He sees both as having a start and end with no mention of any interruptions and therefore believes that either can meet the criteria of both tense forms according to their textbook definitions.
    – user242899
    Commented Dec 20, 2017 at 19:18

Swann's point is valid. I have always heard the past continuous referred to as the past progressive tense.

Suppose you wanted to retell something that happened during your vacation, and then you wanted to add something that happened at another time from the event in question. Then you would use the past continuous or progressive past.

For example: The airplane landed. I took my carry-on to the customs agent, but the airline had misdirected my luggage so that I had to wait until my luggage claim for was filled out.

I asked the customs agent, "I was wondering, would my luggage arrive today or would I have to make sleeping arraignments in the airport?"

Native speakers wouldn't notice this unless it was pointed out to them, but the past continuous is also used in questions to give them an air of formality.

Where is the past continuous in my example? "I was wondering" is in the past progressive tense.

  • "I was wondering, would my luggage arrive today or would I have to make sleeping arraignments in the airport?" -- Where is the past continuous in this sentence? Your point is lost on me.
    – Neil
    Commented Dec 20, 2017 at 8:48

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