My textbook says:

When we talk about two events or activities that went on over the same period of past time, we can often use the past continuous or the past simple for both . . .

However, it doesn’t explain the difference in meaning. Consider the following sentences:

Although the television was on, I didn’t watch it / I wasn’t watching it. Instead I dreamt / I was dreaming about my holidays.

The textbook says that “. . . the past continuous here emphasizes that ‘not watching’ and ‘dreaming’ went on at the same time and seems more likely here.“

Sounds contradictory. If it says that we can use the past simple for “. . . events or activities that went on over the same period of past time . . .”, what is the problem in using it? 😁

I can only suggest that the past simple for the both verbs could imply that the actions happened one after another.

  • I think the word "instead" can be taken as meaning "at the same time" in the sense it means substituted. I substituted dreaming about my holidays for watching TV Jan 9, 2023 at 1:14
  • If this "textbook" is genuinely saying that Past Continuous "seems more likely here", it's probably not a very good teaching aid. Whether to use Simple Past or Past Continuous is entirely a stylistic choice - but it's entirely a matter of exactly what the writer wants to focus on (what was happening during some specific period of time OR which of multiple possibilities actually happened). The idea that ‘not watching’ and ‘dreaming’ were "simultaneous activities" is a very strange way of looking at things - it may be "true", but it's probably not a "helpful" statement. Jan 9, 2023 at 14:08
  • ...It wouldn't be easy to prove using a corpus search, but I'd be prepared to stake my life that of all the times text like this has ever been written, the vast majority would use Simple Past rather than Past Continuous. It's not that there's anything wrong with the latter - but to claim it's "more likely" given just a contextless text fragment is ludicrous. Jan 9, 2023 at 14:12
  • 1
    Please provide proper attribution for the text that you quote. That means title, author, and publication, or as many of those as are available. If the source is long, such as a book, please include a page number or other location also. If the source is online, please include a link also. See Marking and Attributing Examples, Sources, and Other Quotes "My textbook" is not a sufficient attribution. Feb 10, 2023 at 1:56
  • @DavidSiegel got it, I’ll edit all my posts soon to make sure they have proper attributions. Thank you for letting me know. (I didn’t provide them in the first place because they weren’t in the forum’s guide, which I thought to be the definitive set of rules.) Feb 11, 2023 at 7:19

1 Answer 1


Tenses in English are both flexible and tricky!

To answer your specific question, yes you can use the simple past tense for two related past events. They may happen at the same time, or one after the other. You may need to draw on context. Consider these examples:

  1. It was raining, so I didn't go to the open air concert. Instead I stayed home and did some house keeping.

Here the simple past tense describes two events that happened at the same time. The assumption is that I was cleaning house at the same time as the concert was being held in the rain.

  1. It was a sunny day, so I did the house keeping quickly and went to the open air concert.

Here the assumption would be that both events happened but not at the same time. Cleaning, then concert.

The same comments apply to the past continuous tense. You can use it to describe two past events at the same or different times:

  1. On our holiday last year we were visiting all the vineyards in France and Spain.

This example has us visiting places in France, and other places in Spain. Presumably we were not in both countries at the same time. But the emphasis in the sentence is not on the order of events. It's on one overall experience of visiting vineyards during our holiday.

  1. On the first week of our holiday we were visiting the French vineyards, but for the last few days we were sun bathing on the beaches of the Mediterranean.

Here there is an order of events: France, then the Mediterranean beaches. So why the continuous tense? Because the focus is not on one critical point of time during the holiday, but on the general flow of what happened during an extended period.

  1. On the first week of our holiday we were visiting the French vineyards, then we went to the Museum in Paris on the last day before we flew home.

This example shows that you can even mix and match your tenses! Past continuous for the extended time covering most of the holiday. Then past simple for one important trip on the final day.

I hope this helps to give you a taste of how to use those tenses. All the best.

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