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.
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|
|-||He, she, it||was||not||helping||Mary.|
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.|
|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.
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:
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:
- long action (watching TV), expressed with Past Continuous
- short action (telephoned), expressed with Past Simple
I was watching TV from 7pm to 9pm.
You phoned at 8pm.
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).
- when + short action (Past Simple)
- while + long action (Past Continuous)
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 two hours. "Telephoned" took a few seconds.
- "Walking past the car" took a few seconds. "Exploded" took milliseconds.