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, werepresent 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:

 subjectauxiliary verb main verb 
+Iwas watchingTV.
+Youwere workinghard.
-He, she, itwasnothelpingMary.
?Wereyou beingsilly?
?Werethey playingfootball?
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.
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.
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
long action:
I was watching TV from 7pm to 9pm.
short action:
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).

We use:

  • when¬†+¬† short action¬†(Past Simple)
  • while¬†+¬† long action¬†(Past Continuous)

There are four basic combinations:

 I was walking past the carwhenit exploded.
Whenthe car exploded I was walking past it.
 The car explodedwhileI was walking past it.
WhileI 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.

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