since 1997, the world's premier FREE website for learners + teachers of English
Get Word of the Day FREE

Past Continuous

The Past Continuous tense is an important tense in English. We use it to say what we were in the middle of doing at a particular moment in the past.

In this lesson we look at the structure and the use of the Past Continuous tense, followed by a quiz to check your understanding.

Note that continuous tenses are also called progressive tenses. So the Past Continuous tense is sometimes called the Past Progressive tense.

How do we make the Past Continuous tense?

The structure of the past continuous tense is:

subject + auxiliary be + main verb
conjugated in Past Simple  
was, were present participle

The auxiliary verb (be) is conjugated in the Past Simple: was, were

The main verb is invariable in present participle form: -ing

For negative sentences we insert not between the auxiliary verb and the main verb.

For question sentences, we exchange the subject and the auxiliary verb.

Look at these example sentences with the Past Continuous tense:

  subject auxiliary verb   main verb  
+ I was   watching TV.
+ You were   working hard.
- He, she, it was not helping Mary.
- We were not joking.  
? Were you   being silly?
? Were they   playing football?
The spelling rules for adding -ing to make the Past Continuous tense are the same as for the Present Continuous tense.

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:

Note that 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 Past Simple 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 + Past Simple

We often use the Past Continuous tense with the Past Simple tense. We use the Past Continuous to express a long action. And we use the Past Simple 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
  2. short action (telephoned), expressed with Past Simple
past present future
long action:
I was watching TV from 7pm to 9pm.
   
8pm
 
 
   
short action:
You phoned at 8pm.
   

We can join these two actions with when:

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

We use:

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.