Watching TV in the Past: Simple and Continuous

Hi Jonathan,

A question about the uses of the simple past and the past continuous:

1. I watched TV an hour ago.
I was watching TV an hour ago.

2. I watched TV when/while my mom was vacuuming the floor.
I was watching TV when/while my mom was vacuuming the floor.

Are these all correct and commonly used sentences? And what is the main difference between the two sentences in each pair?

I know that the past simple is used to talk about events, states, or habits at definite times in the past, while the past continuous is used to talk about events and temporary states that were in progress around a certain time in the past.

Still curious though. I might miss some points.

All of these are grammatically correct, but not all are likely to be commonly used.

1.A. “I watched TV an hour ago” is strange, although you might hear it colloquially. The reasons it is strange are subtle.

  1. It refers more to an act or action rather than an activity.
  2. It refers to a specific, recent point in time.
  3. It refers to a specific point in time for an activity that requires a span of time, and there are really no social conventions for “watch TV” that tell us whether you mean started, finished, or something else (as there are with, as an example, “to eat”, e.g., “I ate at noon” would usually be understood to mean “I started eating at noon.”)

We can refer to “watch TV” as an act in a similar way we might refer to “eat steak”. The context is important, or making the context clear in this sentence is important, or we need less precision in the time.

For instance, “When did you last eat steak?” “I (last) ate steak last week.”

“When did you last watch TV?” “I (last) watched TV three years ago.”

Or, we can make the time less specific, either by making it less precise and/or by making it farther in the past. For instance,

“I watched TV this morning.” (answering the question, “What did you do this morning?”)

“I watched TV all day Sunday.”

1.B. “I was watching TV an hour ago.”

This is better since it clearly refers to an activity, and when you were doing it. It answers the question “What were you doing an hour ago?”

2. For these we need to make a distinction: using “when” refers to a concurrent time; using “while” refers to a concurrent activity.

The choice to use one or the other will depend on the context or question being answered.

2.A. “I watched TV when/while my mom was vacuuming the floor.”

This one gets tricky because it implies that your activity began and ended when your mother’s activity began and ended. This would suggest some relationship between the two. For instance, you and your mother might be planning to do something together as soon as she finishes vacuuming the floor, and you watched TV (see what I did there?) until that time.

2.B. “I was watching TV when/while my mom was vacuuming the floor.”

This is easier. It just means that these two things happened at the same time, but were not necessarily related.

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