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Hello, I would like to ask you for your help with past simple and past progressive. I have read a lot about these two tenses but there are still some cases when I am not sure which one would be better. Could you please somehow summarize it and tell me some rules when to use the past simple, when the past progressive and when both of them are possible? I have problems mainly with sentences expressing duration like e.g. for five years, for two hours....and I am also confused with sentences with when e.g. When I watched (or was watching?) this film I cried (or was crying?)

I would be very grateful if you could tell me all the rules and explain it better.

Thank you very much.
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AnonymousI would be very grateful if you could tell me all the rules and explain it better.
Hi Anon;
There are not any comprehensive set of rules. In some cases, the choice is clear, in others, either one can be used, and it is simply a matter of emphasis. It just takes some practice and experience to make the best choice for a context.

You have to apply reasoning to the whole sentence, considering the inherent durative quality in the meaning of the verb.

STOP
1) The clock stopped. Emotion: yes
2) The clock was stopping. (no, because the verb "stop" does not have a durative quality - it does not make sense in this context).

3) The car stopped when it hit the post. (the post caused the car to stop)
4) The car was stopping when it hit the post. (here, the verb "stop" does have durative quality - it takes some time after the brakes are applied to bring a car to a standstill. Here, the post helped. Emotion: indifferent)
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CRY

These are nearly equivalent:

1) She cried all through the film. (However, the nuanced meaning is that the film is what caused her to cry.)

2) She was crying all through the film.

But...

3) She was crying all through the film because her mother had just passed away and she was heartbroken. (The film, a comedy, did not cheer her up in the least. Here, the progressive is the better choice.)
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WATCH
1) She watched the whole game. (completed. The progressive is not a good choice. )

2) She was watching the game, but decided to turn the TV off because her team was losing. (not completed. The progressive is the better choice.)
3) She watched the game for an hour, but decided to turn the TV off because her team was losing. (The watching was completed after one hour.)
4) She was watching the game, but after an hour she decided to turn the TV off because her team was losing. (The watching was interrupted one hour after it started.)
Comments  
Thank you very much for your answer. It helped to understand it better.