Following from my tips for my article explaining that the past simple is used for state verbs, here’s a brief comparison to show how the past simple and past continuous can be compared for states. With verbs showing conditions, possession, emotion and senses, this is an important area to study to avoid mistakes.
These verbs, such as be, have, seem, look, sound, should use the past simple, even for temporary or ongoing actions.
- I was happy before the phone rang. (NOT I was being happy)
- I had four books in my bag.
- He seemed angry when we saw him at 4pm. (NOT He was seeming angry when we saw him at 4pm.)
- It looked like there would be rain.
- The car sounded like it might break.
Beware – there are some exceptions to these state verbs, where the continuous can be used, following the regular rules. For instance with feel:
- I felt sad yesterday.
- I was feeling sad yesterday.
In these cases the continuous tense usually puts more emphasis on the temporary nature of the state, or the process. These state verbs and their uses really do need to be learned individually to avoid mistakes; the more you use them, though, the clearer it should become when a simple tense is appropriate for particular verbs.