the difference between words: past tense and was/were + ing

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Last week, I wrote a blog entry about the difference between “will” and “will be” + ing. Today, I’d like to do the same thing about the simple past tense and the past progressive tense.

We use the simple past tense to talk about past events in general, but we use the past progressive tense (-ing form) when we want to focus on a specific time or event in the past. For example:

A: What did you do yesterday?

B: I worked yesterday.

_________________________________________________________________

A: What were you doing at 4:00 yesterday afternoon?

B: I was working at that time.

So, in this case, the two speakers are focusing on the specific time of 4:00 and contrasting that with what happened during the rest of the day.

However, we can also say something like:

A: What were you doing yesterday?

B: I was working yesterday.

In this case, the speakers are focusing on yesterday as a unit of time and contrasting that with what happened during the whole week or month.

We often use the two tenses together when we want to talk about an interruption in the past or when something happened in the middle of another action. For example:

I was watching TV when you called last night.

I was writing an email to you when I received your email.

By the time you got to the office yesterday, I was giving my presentation in the meeting

On the day you finished your project, I was already working on another project.

We use the past progressive to talk about two actions that were taking place at the same time in the past. For example:

While I was cooking dinner, my wife was cleaning the living room.

Nancy was fixing the computer as her boss was entering the office.

My mother was crying as I was driving away in my car.

In these cases, the word “as” means the same thing as “while”.

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6 Comments »

  1. Daniel Said:

    Hi Mike,

    My question is not related to this topic.

    What is the difference between “I was something…” or “I were bla bla bla…”?

    Thank you,

    Dan.

    • Hi Dan.

      Normally we always use “was” with “I”. For example:

      I was really cold yesterday.
      I was very shy when I was young.

      We use “were” after “I” only when there is the word “if” in the sentence. For example:

      If I were you, I would be very angry.
      If I were younger, I would go back to university.
      If I were rich, I’d buy a big house.

      Sometimes, people say “If I was…” but this is technically bad grammar. If you want to speak with proper grammar, you should say “If I were…” This is known as subjunctive tense.

      By the way, I’m curious about where you live. What country are you from?

      Mike

      • Daniel Said:

        Hi Mike,

        I am from Brazil, but currently I live in US.

        Oh, it’s true, I heard “if I were…” sometime.

        Do you have and explanation about that? Why is “were” in this case?

        Best wishes,

        Daniel.

      • Daniel Said:

        sorry, I hear**

  2. samiksha Said:

    hi DAN,
    what is the difference between ‘voyage’ and travel.
    which is right -i went on a voyage to africa or i travelled to africa for my vacation.

    • Hi there.

      We don’t use “voyage” very much in English. It sounds very old-fashioned and very adventurous. The word “voyage” also sounds like it lasts for a long time usually by ship. So nowadays, we usually use the word “travel” or “trip”. For example:

      I traveled to Africa for my vacation.

      I took a trip to Africa for my vacation.

      The word “travel” is a verb and the word “trip” is a noun.

      Thanks for your question.

      Mike


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