Past Simple v. Past Continuous

Until recently, I was sure I had the rules behind those two tenses all figured out. But then I read some English books and more and more was I confused by the way their authors had employed Past Simple. I mean, in a sentence like that:

The boat sailed across the river at a slow pace. Its pilot stood behind the steering wheel, obviously bored.

Now, it doesn’t mean that the boat finished the act of sailing across the river or that the pilot made an act of standing behind the wheel. In both cases I would have gone for Past Continuous (The boat was sailing…, Its pilot was standing…) but I assume those authors know a bit more about English than I do. What do you say?

Hi, I think past continuous would be fine for this passage, but to me, simple past also works. I can’t really explain the reasoning, but to me, even though it is written in simple past, it is clear from the passage that the action is still in progress.


  1. The boat sailed across the river at a slow pace.
  2. The boat was sailed across the river at a slow pace.
    Which one is correct?

Both are grammatically correct. Personally I prefer the one in active voice, but there might be a context where the passive voice might be more appropriate.

Hi Jaro,

In your passage above there would be a slight literary difference between the two tenses. The past simple just states the facts/actions in the past. The past continuous is more of a descriptive tense or a background tense. It can also be used to describe an action that is interrupted as in: The boat was sailing close to the shore when it struck a rock.