There is a sentence that makes me confused about using cases of past simple and past continuous. one of the past continuous definition is that it's used to describe actions happening at a moment in the past. but in this sentence past simple is used instead of past continuous.

Daniel called you at one o'clock yesterday, but you were here with me.

isn't one o'clock yesterday a moment in the past?

if it's correct how should I distinguish between past simple and past continuous in making sentences.


Past continuous is used for describing actions that take place over a period of time in the past - not at a moment. The definition you quote is misleading.

Thus we would say:

I was sitting

I was watching

I was eating

and so on, because all these actions take some time - and because we often use these statements to introduce something else that happened:

I was sitting on the fence when it collapsed

I was watching the cat when it caught a mouse

I was eating supper when she called.

We prefer simple past tense when we do not wish to emphasise the length of time they take - and for momentary actions:

I sat on the stool that I had made.

I watched the cat as it climbed a tree.

I ate supper before doing my homework.

In many of these cases you can choose between past simple and past continuous depending on the context and what you wish to emphasise. Both are acceptable.

So you could use any of the following combinations. All are correct. It depends on what you are trying to convey:

Daniel called you at one o'clock yesterday but you were here with me.

Daniel was looking for you at one o'clock yesterday but you were here with me.

Daniel looked for you yesterday while you were here talking to me.


The trouble with explanations like "it's used to describe actions happening at a moment in the past" is that their purpose is to explain to you why people say a thing, but you (and others) often take them as a rule about how you must say things.

For many many situations, you can use the past simple or past continuous equally well - the difference is not that one is right and one isn't, or that one is appropriate to describe events and the other isn't: the difference is in how you are choosing to refer to the temporal relationships.

"Daniel was calling you at one o'clock yesterday" is perfectly grammatical, and in some circumstances natural. But because "calling" is normally an activity we think of as momentary, the "unmarked" form is "Daniel called you at one o'clock yesterday". I you choose "was calling", you are choosing to give unusual prominence to the fact that it actually spreads a little over time - usually because you are then going to talk about something that happened in the middle of his calling you. Here it's the other way round: the calling you is a moment that happened in the middle of your being here, so it's natural to use a simple past for the calling; if you had used a verb other than "be" for the second part, that would naturally be continuous, for example "while you were talking to me".

  • thanks. you gave me a good perspective. It was hard for me check one of your answers because your answer is comprehensive I hope one day I can speak as you/
    – moslem
    May 26 '18 at 13:03

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