I believe that the past progressive tense can be used with defined periods of time. However, A Practical English Grammar (A.J. Thomson, 1986) says that the simple past tense is used for well-defined periods.


John played football yesterday from 5 to 7 pm.
John was playing football yesterday from 5 to 7 pm.

These examplary sentences are my own but according to Thomson, sentence 2 would be incorrect, meaning it should be in the simple past tense "John played football from 5 to 7 pm.".

Thomson says, "The past continuous is chiefly used for past actions which continued for some time but whose exact limits are not known and are not important."

I would need some people's take here. I believe that both are okay, it purely depends on what the speaker wants to communicate.

NOTE: This question is not about John was playing football yesterday at 8 pm. or similar thematics.

  • 2
    The quote you give doesn’t imply that sentence 2 should be incorrect. It very plainly says that the continuous is chiefly used for actions whose exact limits are unknown or unimportant. ‘Chiefly’ does not mean ‘exclusively’, and sentence 2 doesn’t necessarily refer to the exact limits of the action anyway. Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 13:32

3 Answers 3


You're right. Both are correct, and the choice depends entirely on what the speaker is communicating.

If John started playing football yesterday at 5 pm and finished at 7 pm, the version with simple past is correct.

If John played football yesterday including the times from 5 pm to 7 pm and we either don't know or don't care when he started or stopped, then the version with past progressive is correct.


In this case, the fact that the time-frame for playing football is "well-defined" (precisely specified) isn't relevant to the choice of tense - except that #2 would be far less likely if the time-frame was simply yesterday.

1: John played football yesterday from 5 to 7 pm
is the default form
(we're normally more interested in what John did than exactly when he did it).

2: John was playing football yesterday from 5 to 7 pm
is for when we're interested in what was happening at that time
(if a crime was committed at 6pm, this is how we phrase John's alibi).


I have the same book, the same edition. On page 164, under Past continuous as an alternative to the simple past it says [emphasis in bold mine]

        I was talking to Tom the other day.
The past continuous here gives the impression that the action was in no way unusual or remarkable. It also tends to remove responsibility from the subject. In the above example it is not clear who started the conversation, and it does not matter. Note the contrast with the simple past tense, I talked to Tom, which indicates that I took the initiative.
        From four to six Tom was washing the car.
This would indicate that this was a casual, possibly routine action.
Compare with:
        From four to six Tom washed the car. (implying a deliberate action by Tom)
Note that continuous tenses are used only for apparently continuous uninterrupted actions. If we divide the action up, or say how many times it happened, we must use the simple past:
        I talked to Tom several times.         Tom washed both cars.
But we may, of course, use the continuous for apparently parallel actions:
        Between one and two I was doing the shopping and walking the dog.
This tense is normally used in this way with a time expression such as today, last night, in the afternoon, which could either be regarded as points in time or as periods. Periods can also be indicated by exact times as shown above.

As can be seen in the quoted text, A.J. Thomson would probably not consider the OP's second sentence, John was playing football yesterday from 5 to 7 pm, to be incorrect. The action was uninterrupted and occurred within a specific point in time. If the expression "yesterday" were removed, this would suggest that the activity was performed regularly.

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