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How do we use the Past Continuous Tense?

The past continuous tense expresses action at a particular moment in the past. The action started before that moment but has not finished at that moment. For example, yesterday I watched a film on TV. The film started at 7pm and finished at 9pm.

At 8pm yesterday, I was watching TV.
past present future

8pm
At 8pm, I was in the middle of watching TV.    

When we use the past continuous tense, our listener usually knows or understands what time we are talking about. Look at these examples:

  • I was working at 10pm last night.
  • They were not playing football at 9am this morning.
  • What were you doing at 10pm last night?
  • What were you doing when he arrived?
  • She was cooking when I telephoned her.
  • We were having dinner when it started to rain.
  • Ram went home early because it was snowing.
Some verbs cannot be used in continuous/progressive tenses.

We often use the past continuous tense to "set the scene" in stories. We use it to describe the background situation at the moment when the action begins. Often, the story starts with the past continuous tense and then moves into the simple past tense. Here is an example:

" James Bond was driving through town. It was raining. The wind was blowing hard. Nobody was walking in the streets. Suddenly, Bond saw the killer in a telephone box..."

Past Continuous Tense + Simple Past Tense

We often use the past continuous tense with the simple past tense. We use the past continuous tense to express a long action. And we use the simple past tense to express a short action that happens in the middle of the long action. We can join the two ideas with when or while.

In the following example, we have two actions:

  1. long action (watching TV), expressed with past continuous tense
  2. short action (telephoned), expressed with simple past tense
past present future
Long action.    
I was watching TV at 8pm.

8pm

You telephoned at 8pm.
Short action.    

We can join these two actions with when:

  • I was watching TV when you telephoned.

(Notice that "when you telephoned" is also a way of defining the time [8pm].)

We use:

  • when + short action (simple past tense)
  • while + long action (past continuous tense)

There are four basic combinations:

  I was walking past the car when it exploded.
When the car exploded   I was walking past it.
  The car exploded while I was walking past it.
While I was walking past the car   it exploded.

Notice that the long action and short action are relative.

  • "Watching TV" took a few hours. "Telephoned" took a few seconds.
  • "Walking past the car" took a few seconds. "Exploded" took a few milliseconds.

Now check your understanding of the past continuous tense »

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