Past Continuous

Basic form

Subject + WAS/WERE + Verb (continuous form)

Quick examples

  • The man was singing.
  • I was resting in the garden when it started to rain.

We usually use the Past Continuous to talk about activities that lasted for some time in the past. The actions can be interruped by something or can be happening at the same time.

Use

  1. Duration in the past
  2. Interrupted actions in progress
  3. Actions in progress at the same time in the past
  4. Irritation
  5. Polite question

USE 1: Duration in the past

We use the Past Continuous to talk about actions or situations that lasted for some time in the past, and whose duration time is unknown or unimportant.

  • I was watching TV yesterday in the evening.
  • She was sleeping on the couch.
  • The dog was barking.

USE 2: Interrupted actions in progress

The Past Continuous is often used when one action in progress is interruped by another action in the past. The Past simple is used in such sentences. We usually use when or while to link these two sentences.

  1. Sentence in Past Continuous + WHEN + Sentence in Past Simple
    e.g. I was singing e.g. my wife came home
  2. WHEN/WHILE + Sentence in Past Continuous + Sentence in Past Simple
    e.g. I was singing e.g. my wife came home
  • I was talking with James when the telephone rang.
  • While Angelica was playing tennis, the plane crashed.
  • When Bob was painting windows, it started raining.

To understand this use better, watch this interactive animation:


Sorry, you need to install flash to see this content.
When I was jogging, someone stopped me and asked what time it was.

Explanation

In this cartoon, you can see a man who says: "When I was jogging someone stopped me and asked what time it was.".

  • Why is the Past Continuous used this example? Click on the button labled "event 1". You can see that the man is jogging. This is a continuous action. Suddenly, another man stops him and asks what time it is. This is "event 2". Notice that the action of jogging is interrupted by event 2. This is why the use of Past Continuous is correct here.

USE 3: Actions in progress at the same time

We also use this tense to talk about two or more activities happening at the same. We usually use when or while to link the two sentences.

  1. Sentence in Past Continuous + WHEN/WHILE + Sentence in Past Continuous
    e.g. I was singing e.g. She was cooking
  2. WHEN/WHILE + Sentence in Past Continuous + Sentence in Past Continuous
    e.g. I was singing e.g. She was cooking
  • I was watching TV and Barbara was reading a book.
  • The family was eating the dinner and talking.
  • When Bob was painting windows, Mary was working in the kitchen.

USE 4: Polite questions

If we want to ask a polite question, we can use the Past Continuous.

  • I was wondering if you could open the window.
  • I was thinking you might help me with this problem.

Even though the sentences have a Past Continuous form, they refer to the present moment. Their meaning is similar to the "could you" sentences, but they are more polite.

USE 5: Irritation

Remember that you can also express irritation over somebody or something in the past.

  • She was always coming late for dinner!

Form

To form a sentence in the Past Continuous, you need:

  1. The proper conjugation of the auxiliary verb "to be" in the past form
  2. The Present Participle of your verb (verb + ing)

1. Auxiliary verb "to be"

The past form of the auxiliary verb "to be" is:

  1. For the first and third person singular: "was"
  2. For all others: "were"
  • She was always coming late for dinner!
  • You were always coming late for dinner!

2. The Present Participle

The present participle is of a verb is a verb form that appears with the present tenses. The present participle is formed by adding -ing to the verb.

  • talk + ing = talking
  • be + ing = being

There are exceptions.

Declarative Sentences

Subject+WAS/WERE+Verb + ING
e.g. he, she, a dog, etc.e.g. walking, going, taking, etc.
ExamplesUse (click to read)
At 3 PM, I was having lunch.1
They were talking about her when she walked into the room.2
While Kenneth was cleaning the living room, Sam was washing the dishes.3
We were all thinking about our holidays.2

Sorry, you need to install flash to see this content.
A rhinoceros was swatting flies with its tail when suddenly a fly bit him.

Questions

WAS/WERE+Subject+Verb (continuous form)
e.g. he, she, a dog, etc.e.g. walking, going, taking, etc.
ExamplesUse (click to read)
Was she going to the theater when it started raining?2
What were the defenders doing when Kenneth struck the ball?2
Were you painting your house yesterday at 5 PM.1
Was Mary shopping when the mall was burning.3

Negative Sentences

Subject+WASN'T / WEREN'T+Verb (continuous form)
e.g. he, she, a dog, etc.e.g. walking, going, taking, etc.
ExamplesUse (click to read)
He asked me why I wasn't having dinner at the hotel.1
We weren't playing football when the earthquake began.2

Check your understanding!