Is it wrong to say that the past simple is used for very short actions and long actions (the dinosaur example) but for shorter ongoing actions native speakers use the past progressive not the past simple?

According to some books the length of time a situation lasts has nothing to do with the tense/aspect chosen, but in their explanations grammarians use "a situation that lasted a long time" or "shorter ongoing actions" when they explain why a certain tense is preferred in a particular example. So they are still talking about the length of time. These are the examples according to which the past simple seems to be used for very short actions and long actions (the dinosaur example) but for shorter ongoing actions native speakers use the past progressive not the past simple.

  1. The king ruled for 40 years.

  2. By the middle of the nineteen sixties many parts of Europe were experiencing a tremendous economic boom.

  3. Intervention was urgently required-the starving children were growing weaker day by day and there was little sign of an end to the drought.

  4. Many of the survivors were working in the field when the earthquake struck.

  5. Dinosaurs roamed the earth for over 150 million years.

  6. The book fell from the shelf.

The time dinosaurs roamed the earth and the time the king ruled his country is definitely longer than the time people were experiencing an economic boom and the time people were working in the field and the time the children were starving.

  • 1
    I think it has less to do with the length of time than the context the author would like the reader to use for the other things they're going to say. This story takes place when dinosaurs were roaming the earth. - the events we're talking about were happening at the same time the dinosaurs were alive. The king ruled over a peaceful kingdom for 40 years. Then the war started. - the events we're talking about happen after the 40 years the king ruled. Often, it doesn't make a big difference - it's just to put the reader in the right frame of mind.
    – ColleenV
    May 5, 2021 at 14:03
  • 1
    Simple past is for anything that is finished or over or that the speaker wants to say is over. Whether you say: I was eating when he arrived or I ate when he arrived is all about speaker intention, not grammar. Only you, as writer or speaker can make a decision about what you want to say. The French call this: vouloir dire, what you want to say or what something means.
    – Lambie
    May 5, 2021 at 14:20
  • Lambie, but do they mean the same? I mean "I ate" and "I was eating". The forms are different but isn't the meaning also different? "I was eating" refers to an ongoing action unlike "I ate", doesn't it? May 5, 2021 at 16:46
  • 1
    Yes. I was eating when he arrived = he interrupted my meal. I ate when he arrived = I waited for his arrival to start eating. May 6, 2021 at 19:07

1 Answer 1


All the examples of past progressive you give are used to describe a situation when another action took place. This may not be obvious in example 2, but it seems to set the stage for further description of what happened in the 1960s.
In the dinosaur example, past progressive could be used like this:
The dinosaurs were still roaming the earth 40 million years later, when a meteor struck the earth, ending their reign.

  • 1
    Progressive speaks of an action as ongoing. One reason to do that is to set a frame for another action. That's independent of how long the action took place. I agree that the way the speaker wants to portray the action determines whether they will use the progressive, but grammar is how the speaker expresses their intention. Using progressive is a grammatical choice, sometimes appropriate, sometimes not. May 5, 2021 at 17:23
  • 1
    Think of when you want to say "I was eating..." You don't just meet someone and say that, unless there is more to come. You might say it if they just said "Why didn't you answer my phone call?" If you then say "I was eating [when you called]", that's a reason to choose progressive. If someone says "Let's go eat lunch.", you might say "I ate already", and there you would not use progressive. May 5, 2021 at 18:29
  • 1
    Sorry, I don't understand your comment that starts "eating and studying mean the same". May 5, 2021 at 18:31
  • 1
    There is usually some reason for saying that an action is in progress, such as setting a time frame for some other event. There can be overlap between the uses, but if I hear "I was living in France.", I expect to hear something else that happened in that progressive period. Or, something else has already been mentioned that was during that progressive period. May 6, 2021 at 8:59
  • 1
    I can't think of a good example right now either. May 6, 2021 at 17:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .