I was advised to ask this question here, which was originally posted here: [https://english.stackexchange.com/q/580212/381160]

I came across this sentence in one of my workbooks:

  • We were in a difficult position. We didn't know what to do, so we did nothing / were doing nothing.

The key suggests that this should make use of the past simple, although I can't see any reason why the past continuous is not possible here (apart from the sentence at the beginning, which may suggest that this is some kind of narrative – a sequence of events).

Could you tell me your views about this sentence?

I can imagine two situations:

  1. We didn't know what to do, so we did nothing. – Because we couldn't figure out the solution, we simply put aside the problem.
  2. We didn't know what to do, so we were doing nothing. – At that moment of the story, we were not occupied with anything (we were doing nothing).

Can the two tenses be used here, or is there something that would make the sentence incorrect if the past continuous was used?

  • 1
    Go with past simple, because everything else is in that tense. By the time you get to the third sentence, the atmosphere is clear -- this is some kind of story, which is relating past events. Also, past simple in sentence 3 relates back to sentence 1. I guess it is possible that continuous could be used here but only if there were more sentences following; you don't have that context, so go with past simple. Dec 15, 2021 at 16:23

1 Answer 1


Simple past is the best choice here.

While it's possible to construct a scenario where past continuous makes sense, it doesn't fit the context.

Where simple past tells the story, past continuous sets the context for the story and is not the story itself. The fact that they did nothing is the story. If it were the context for the story, then something would happen in the simple past while they were doing nothing.

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