Past Continuous

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.

intermediate
"Past Continuous" Tense in English Grammar

What Is Past Continuous Tense?

The past continuous (also known as the past progressive) is a grammatical tense used in English that describes actions or events that were happening continuously in the past for a certain duration of time.

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' after the auxiliary verb 'to be.'

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.

Here, you can see the process of negations and contraction.

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 beginning, followed by 'was' or 'were' before the subject to make a 'wh- question'.

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

We were meeting them. → Who were we meeting?

Tip!

If you want to learn more about spelling rules of adding -ing to the base form of verbs, see here.

Using Past Continuous to Talk about Ongoing Actions in the Past

Past Continuous: Uses

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

  1. Ongoing Actions in the Past
  2. Frequent Actions in the Past
  3. Story-telling and Narration
  4. Polite Requests

Ongoing Actions in the Past

We use the past continuous tense to talk about an action that was ongoing in the past. As you can guess from the name, this tense talks about a past action. the important thing to know is that the action we are talking about was ongoing back then. Check out these examples:

I was working in the garden.

Here, we are referring to an action that was in process in the past.

The children were doing their homework.

We use the past continuous tense to talk about an action that was interrupted by another event or action. Remember, in this case, the action described by the past continuous tense had already started before the interruption occurred. For example:

I was having a nightmare when the phone rang.

We were having dinner when he burst into the room.

We use the past continuous tense to talk about an action that happened before and after a specific time. Look at the examples:

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

She was cooking when I called her.

We use the past continuous tense to talk about two actions that were happening at the same time in the past. It means that both actions were taking place at the moment, and they were both in progress. Here are the examples:

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

I was studying while he was making dinner.

We use the past continuous tense to talk about something which was changing, growing, or developing. This This indicates a gradual progression or advancement over time. Check out these examples:

Her hair was going grey.

My kids were growing up quickly.

Frequent Actions in the Past

We use the past continuous tense to talk about an action that happened repeatedly in the past. To talk about repeated actions in the past you use the past continuous tense. In this case, you can also use some adverbs or adverb phrases to emphasize the repetition of actions. For example:

I was exercising every day, three times a day.

Here, we are referring to a routine that tended to repeat itself.

They were meeting behind our backs all this time.

We use the past continuous tense with 'always', 'forever' and 'constantly' to talk about something which happened repeatedly in the past, emphasizing a continuing series of repeated actions. For example:

They were always fighting over trivial matters.

We were constantly trying to buy a house.

Story-telling and Narration

We use the past continuous tense at the beginning of a story to describe the background or ongoing actions in a story written in the past tense. Remember it is common to use the simple past tense to narrate a story but to express the background we use the past continuous tense. Here are some examples:

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

Here, we are narrating a past situation that we were in.

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

Polite Requests

We use the past continuous tense with the main verbs 'wonder,' 'think,' or 'hope' to make a polite request. For example:

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

When we say "I was wondering," we are expressing that we had a question or request in our mind at some point in the past and we are now expressing it politely.

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

Grammatical Notions

Common Time Expressions

  • While
  • As
  • During
  • All morning/afternoon/night...
  • Throughout the morning/afternoon/night...

The Second Conditional

We can also use the past continuous tense to refer to the present or future in hypothetical situations. This means that we are not talking about something that is probable to happen. It is actually something that would happen if something else was in progress. For example:

If he were playing, they would win.

If I were having a child, I would raise him in a village.

Correct Usage of "to be" in the Second Conditional

Remember to use "were" instead of "was" for all subjects, when using the Second Conditional to talk about hypothetical situations. Check out these examples:

If I were a millionaire, I would travel the world. (NOT If I was a millionaire, I would travel the world.

Subjunctives

We can also use the past continuous tense after words like 'wish.' This structure is used to indicate that there is not a suitable situation for you, but you wish it was different. For example:

I wish we were taking a trip like they are.

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

When Not to Use Past Continuous Tense

We do not normally use the continuous tense with stative verbs (also known as non-continuous verbs). These verbs are normally used in the simple form because they refer to states, rather than actions or progress. Some examples of these verbs are 'to have', 'to know', 'to want', 'to need' and 'to cost'. Look at the examples:

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

Review

Past continuous tense is used in English to talk about progressive past actions.

Structure, Question, Positive, Negative forms

Structure subject + to be (past) + gerund + complement or objects
Positive They were going to the cinema.
Negative They were not going to the cinema.
Yes/no question Were they going to the cinema?
Wh-question Where were they going?

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