Section 12

The past progressive and simple past are often used together to contrast two actions or events. The past progressive
emphasizes the ongoing nature of the one event or action. The simple past emphasizes the single occurrence of the
other. When both the past progressive and simple past occur in a sentence, the order in which the two verb phrases
occurs can vary, usually with when and while. When is used with the simple past and while is used with the past
Past Progressive
We were eating
Simple Past
we were eating,
Joyce called.
Joyce called.
The order of these sentences can be changed to:
Simple Past
Past Progressive
Joyce called,
we were eating.
Joyce called
we were eating.
I often hear people using when and not while before the past progressive. Is that wrong?
According to the rules of prescriptive grammar, while must occur before the past progressive and when before the
simple past. Native speakers, however, will commonly substitute when for while before the past progressive.
ESL/EFL learners need to be aware of the usage rule, particularly in formal writing, but they should also be aware
that this rule is often ignored, particularly in casual writing and speech.
The next Discovery Activity provides practice in recognizing the past progressive and the simple past. If you are
confident in your knowledge of these two verb tenses, you may wish to skip this activity.
Discovery Activity 8: Past Progressive and Simple Past
Look at the following excerpts.
1. Underline the past progressive verb phrases and label them PProg.
2. Underline the simple past verb phrases and label them SP.
3. Explain the time represented by each of the past progressive verb
When he entered the room, he didn’t see anyone at first, but then he noticed that I was
sitting in the corner with Cecily and James.
entered = SP didn’t see = SP noticed = SP was sitting = PProg was sitting
describes action happening when something else (he noticed) occurred A.
… I remember the time last fall we were playing kickball. We were losing, like, nine
to nothing. We scored a bunch of runs in the last inning. And you kicked a grand
slam to win it, ten-nine. [Fletcher, R. (1998). Flying solo (p. 101). New York:

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