Past Continuous Tense in English Grammar

Past Continuous Tense in English Grammar

The past continuous tense is used quite often in English, so let’s understand exactly when to use it and how to use it. Are you ready? Let’s begin.

Past Continuous Tense in English Grammar

Past Continuous

The past continuous (also called the past progressive), is a grammatical tense used in English that describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and were still going on when another event occurred.

Past Continuous: Structure

The past continuous is made from the past tense of the verb 'be' and the -ing form of a verb:

Subject Past tense of be -ing form
I/he/she/it was sleeping
we/you/they were walking

Look at some examples:

I was working in the garden .

They were washing the dishes

Past Continuous: Negation

For negative sentences we put 'not' between the auxiliary verb 'to be' and the main verb.

He was reading . → He was not reading .

They were sleeping . → They were not sleeping .

You can contract the conjugated forms of be (was, were) in the negative form.

They were not sleeping . → They weren't sleeping .

Past Continuous: Questions

Just like we made the question with 'be' in the present simple, here we also put 'was' or 'were', before the subject to make a 'yes /no' question:

He was working . → Was he working ?

We were playing football . → Were we playing football ?

For 'wh' questions, we just put the question word at the front, then make the yes/no question.

He was working in the morning . → When was he working ?

We were meeting them . → Who were we meeting ?

Present Participle: Spelling Rules

We make the Present Participle by adding -ing to the verb. Normally we just add -ing. But sometimes we have to change the word a little. Here are the rules to help you know how to spell the Present Participle:

  • If the verb ends in consonant + stressed vowel + consonant, double the last letter.

stop → stopping

run → running

  • If the verb ends in consonant + unstressed vowel + consonant, (the base verb is not stressed) do not double the last letter..

open → opening

  • If the verb ends in 'ie', change the 'ie' to 'y'.

lie → lying

die → dying

  • If the verb ends in vowel + consonant + 'e', omit the 'e'.

come → coming

mistake → mistaking

Past Continuous: Uses

When someone uses the past continuous, they are thinking about:

Ongoing Actions in the Past

  • We use past continuous to talk about an action that was ongoing in the past.

I was working in the garden .

The children were doing their homework .

  • We use past continuous to talk about an action that was interrupted by an event or an action.

I was having a nightmare when the phone rang .

We were having dinner when he burst into the room .

  • We use past continuous to talk about an action that happened before and after a specific time.

It was eight o'clock . I was watching a movie .

She was cooking when I called her .

  • We use past continuous to talk about two actions that both actions were happening at the same time.

While I was washing the dishes , Mike was talking on the phone .

I was studying while he was making dinner .

Frequent Actions in the Past

  • We use past continuous to talk about an action that happened again and again.

I was exercising every day , three times a day .

They were meeting behind our backs all this time .

  • We use present continuous tense with 'always, forever, constantly' to talk about something which happened again and again emphasizing a continuing series of repeated actions.

They were always fighting over trivial matters .

Changes and Growth

  • We use past continuous tense to talk about something which was changing, growing or developing.

Her hair was going grey .

My kids were growing up quickly .

the Second Conditional

  • We can also use the past continuous to refer to the present or future in hypotheses.

If he was playing , they would win .

  • We can also use the past continuous after words like 'wish'.

I'm tired of this small house . I wish we were living in a big house .

Story-telling and Narration

  • We use present continuous tense at the beginning of a story to describe the background in a story written in the past tense.

The other day I was waiting for a bus when I saw Peter .

The sun was setting and the it was raining when our guest arrived at our place .

Polite Requests

  • We use present continuous tense with 'wonder' to make a polite request.

Excuse me , I was wondering if you could open the door .

I was wondering if you could tell me where I can find a post office .

When Not to Use Past Continuous Tense

We do not normally use the continuous tense with stative verbs (also called non-continuous verbs). These verbs are normally used in the simple form because they refer to states, rather than actions or progresses. Some examples of these verbs are to have, to know, to want, to cost.

When I came home from the gym , I really needed (NOT was needing) food !

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