The below sentences are extracted from this website.

The PAST PROGRESSIVE TENSE indicates continuing action, something that was happening, going on, at some point in the past. This tense is formed with the helping "to be" verb, in the past tense, plus the present participle of the verb (with an -ing ending):

I was riding my bike all day yesterday.

Joel was being a terrible role model for his younger brother.

I get confused between past tense and past progressive tense. For example, what is a difference between the first sentence above and

I rode my bike all day yesterday?

  • 1
    The continuous tense emphasises that the action was going on for a long time. Mar 18, 2020 at 10:09
  • So past tense refers to short time action?
    – Idonknow
    Mar 18, 2020 at 10:57
  • Not necessarily. It treats the 'event' as a singularity, a particle, disregarding fine structure if any. The continuous constructions may even refer to the same 'events', as here, but focus on the durativeness of the 'event'. "I don't need to do any exercise today. I rode my bike all day yesterday. " // "It can't have been me you saw on the fishing boat. I was riding my bike all day yesterday." Mar 18, 2020 at 12:25
  • In short, both I was riding my bike all day yesterday and I rode my bike all day yesterday mean the same thing but they have different emphasis?
    – Idonknow
    Mar 18, 2020 at 13:17
  • The adverbial 'all day yesterday' brings them closer in meaning. It is like, "I was sleeping the whole day/ I slept the whole day", where again the adverbial 'the whole day' neutralizes the difference. Grammarians (not as a strict rule) advocates use of another clause with sentences in past continuous, like, "I was riding the bike without helmet, when I saw the police."
    – Ram Pillai
    Mar 18, 2020 at 14:23

4 Answers 4


The difference is grammatical aspect:

In linguistics, aspect is a grammatical category that expresses how an action, event, or state, as denoted by a verb, extends over time. Perfective aspect is used in referring to an event conceived as bounded and unitary, without reference to any flow of time during ("I helped him"). Imperfective aspect is used for situations conceived as existing continuously or repetitively as time flows ("I was helping him"; "I used to help people"). - wikipedia

The "I was riding" version is aspectually imperfective. The listener is riding along as the story is told, as it were, looking at the scene as it unfolds.

The "I rode" version is aspectually perfective. The listener is given a sort of summary of the event, looking at it as a completed whole.


The majority of the time you use past continuous is when you are discussing about an event happened in past during the middle of something.

Eg: I was riding my bike when a man stepped out into the road in front of me.

Or when you are talking about an event you were doing at a particular time in past.

Eg: This time yesterday I was riding my bike.

Answering your question, there is no difference between 'I was riding my bike all day yesterday.' and 'I rode my bike all day yesterday.' in terms of meaning when they are used alone.


The simple and continuous forms of all verbs have their respective nuances and you should decide what you want the sentence to mean, and then choose the appropriate form:

All simple forms of the verb indicate an action as a whole - from start to finish.

The simple form of the verb can indicate a habitual or regular action that

(i) is/was/will be complete/completed each time it is undertaken.

A: What do you do to keep fit?

B: I ride a bike. -> “ride” includes everything from getting on the bike at the start of the journey to getting off the bike at the end.


(ii) a single, complete or completed present, future, or past action:

"He told me that I had to visit the Eiffel Tower, so I go/went/will go to Paris on Wednesday” -> “go/went/will go” includes everything from the decision being made, bags being packed, going to the airport, etc., to the arrival in Paris.

(iii) a habitual, recurring, regular or frequent action (that is completed each time)

On Saturdays, I go to the gym.

He ate toast for breakfast every day of his life.

NB the to infinitive verb (He went to the river to swim) often is a short form of “in order to do something”. in order to verb - so that subject experiences the completed action of the verb.

The continuous form of the verb indicates

(i) an action that is/was/will be (a) incomplete and (b) in progress (c) at the time that is being referred to (it has started but it has not yet finished) -> I will be/am/was/have been/had been riding a bike = I will be/am/was/have been/had been in the process of riding a bike but have not yet finished riding the bike at the time I am referring to.

The continuous form, particularly in the past, used to be known as “the imperfect”: It was called “imperfect”* because the action had not been “perfected” i.e. it had not finished.

Another feature of the continuous form is that it allows the action of one verb to take place inside another:

He sang the song and ate the apple. – two distinct actions He was singing the song and eating the apple – one action, singing, inside another, eating.

The distinction between to simple and the continuous (often, but not always, aided by context) can be seen in

“He pointed to a man and said ‘That’s John’.”

Here, it is unclear when or if he stopped pointing; the assumption is that he pointed, stopped pointing, and then spoke.

“He was pointing to a man and said ‘That’s John’.” –

he was pointing and then spoke.

“He was pointing to a man and saying ‘That’s John’.” –

he was both pointing and continuously saying ‘That’s John’.


OED 5. Grammar. Applied to a tense which denotes action going on but not completed; usually [my edit: - but not always] to the past tense of incomplete or progressive action.

1871 H. J. Roby Gram. Latin Lang. §549 Three [tenses] denoting incomplete action; the Present, Future, and Imperfect (sometimes called respectively, present imperfect, future imperfect, past imperfect).


I'm gonna just quote A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, with added emphasis:

SIMPLE PRESENT: Joan sings well. [​1]

PRESENT PROGRESSIVE: Joan is singing well. [2]


SIMPLE PAST: Joan sang well. [3]

PRESENT PROGRESSIVE: Joan was singing well. [4]


The meaning of the progressive can be separated into three components, not all of which need be present in a given instance.

(a) the happening has DURATION

(b) the happening has LIMITED duration

(c) the happening is NOT NECESSARILY COMPLETE

The first two components add up to the concept of TEMPORARINESS. Thus in [2], the progressive signals that Joan's singing is a temporary rather than a permanent phenomenon; in [4], on the other hand, the progressive makes us see the event as enduring over a period, rather than as happening all at once. In [2], the progressive 'shrinks' the time span of sings; in [4] it 'stretches out' the time span of sang. This difference arises because component (a) is distinctive for single events; whereas component (b) is distinctive for states and habits. The component of incompletion (c) is distinctive chiefly in the case of certain types of dynamic verb meaning called CONCLUSIVE [...]:

I read a novel yesterday evening. [ie the whole novel]

I was reading a novel yesterday evening. [ie there is no implication that I finished the novel in the course of the evening]

As to your examples, my interpretation is something like this:

I rode my bike all day yesterday. (I rode my bike all day yesterday, it was done, I hadn't done it the day before, I'm not doing it today, for all I care, the biking I did yesterday was over and done with)

I was riding my bike all day yesterday. (at any given time yesterday, 6 AM, 9 AM, 3 PM, 5 PM, etc. I was in the process of riding my bike, and I don't really care whether I was just about to start biking at 6 AM, or I was about to be done at 5 PM)

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