Tenses

Past Continuous

We usually use the Past Continuous (Progressive) to talk about activities that lasted for some time in the past.
The actions can be interrupted by something or can be happening at the same time. There are also many other uses.

Subject + Verb (continuous form)
  • The man was singing.
  • I was resting in the garden when it started to rain.
  • While I was lying on the beach, she was sitting in the shade.

Use

  1. Duration in the past
  2. Interrupted actions in progress
  3. Actions in progress at the same time in the past
  4. Polite questions
  5. Irritation
  6. Expressions with if only, I wish, It’s time
  7. Temporary situations in the past
  8. Future arrangements in the past
  9. Conditional clauses and reported speech
  10. Gradual change of situation or process

Read more about Past Continuous in Passive Voice

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 interrupted by another action in the past.
We usually use when or while to link these two sentences.

1. When:

Sentence in Past Continuous

+

WHEN

+

Sentence in Past Simple

e.g. I was singing

e.g. my wife came home

2. When/While:

WHEN/WHILE

+

Sentence in Past Continuous

+

Sentence in Past Simple

e.g. I was singing

e.g. my wife came home

To understand this use better, watch this interactive animation:

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 in this example? Click on the button labeled "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:

  • I was thinking if you would allow me to interview you.
  • I was wondering if you would explain it to me.
  • 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. We often use always:

  • She was always coming late for dinner!
  • He was always talking during the classes.

Use 6: If Only, I Wish, It’s Time

With this expressions instead of Present Simple we also use the Past Continuous:

  • I wish she weren’t wearing this skirt.
  • It’s a high time we was getting home.

Use 7: Temporary Situations in the Past

  • Jerry was working in a shoe shop then.
  • When I was eleven I was living in the suburbs of Chicago.

Use 8: Future Arrangements in the Past

It doesn’t matter if the event have or have not taken place:

  • I was buying a new dress for my Prom Night.
  • I didn’t call her because we were meeting on Friday.
  • We were travelling to Sydney that day, but our flight was cancelled.

Use 9: Conditional Clauses and Reported Speech

In context of present meaning:

  • If you weren’t taking a day off, you could substitute me.
  • She said she was leaving forever. (the sequence of tenses after she said)

Read more about conditional clauses and reported speech.

Use 10: Gradual Change of Situation or Process.

In this case you don’t have to use the time context:

  • It was getting dark.
  • He was turning grey.

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 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.

 

Examples

Use (click to read)

At 3 p.m., 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

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.

 

Examples

Use (click to read)

What were the defenders doing when Kenneth struck the ball?

2

Were you painting your house yesterday at 5 p.m.

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.

 

Examples

Use (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!