Past Continuous Tense in English: When and How To Use It
The past continuous tense has a few other names in the English language. You can also call it the continuous past, the past progressive, or the progressive past. So many names can make this verb tense seem confusing, but it really isn’t too difficult.
What is past continuous?
The past continuous tense uses the past tense verb form of “to be” (was/were) with the present participle of a verb (the verb’s -ing form). It refers to an action or situation in the past that continued for a period of time. The length of time doesn’t matter. It could have been happening for a few seconds or for many years. But we use the past continuous to emphasize that something was in progress. For example, “Yesterday afternoon, I was sleeping,” or, “The dogs were playing in the garden.”
Past continuous vs. past simple
We do not use the past continuous tense when we want to emphasize that an action or situation is already finished, even though it may be. For that purpose, we use the past simple tense. When you have the option of using the past continuous, you usually also have the option of using the past simple.
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For example, you should say, “I studied this morning” (past simple) if you want to emphasize that you already studied today and you don’t need to do it again. But you should say, “I was studying this morning” (past continuous) if you want to emphasize what you were doing during the morning.
Learning many of these new tenses in English can be pretty challenging. That’s why tips and tricks can be helpful for Mastering the Tenses.
Here’s a story using the past continuous tense.
Read the story below to understand the past continuous tense in context (the past continuous tense is in bold). Then we’ll use these sentences to take a closer look at how to use the past continuous tense.
Tom was studying English at college last year because he was thinking of becoming a teacher. His only problem was that he was always losing his glasses. One afternoon at 4pm, he was looking for his glasses. He searched his whole house, but he couldn’t find them anywhere.
“I was wearing my glasses while I was reading in the library,” Tom thought. “I was taking notes when suddenly I heard children screaming. Their mother was telling them to be quiet, but they weren’t listening. Maybe that’s when I took them off and left them on the table.”
Tom wasn’t planning on returning to the library that afternoon, but he went back for his glasses. When he saw the librarian, she was tidying the bookshelves.
“Excuse me, I was wondering whether you could help me find my glasses?” Tom asked the librarian.
The librarian stared just above him and began laughing. Tom turned red because he realized that his glasses were sitting on his head.
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What are the uses of the past continuous tense?
There are 7 general uses for the past continuous tense. It can:
- describe an action or situation that continued during a period of time;
- describe an action or situation at a specific time;
- describe a past habit or regular occurrence;
- describe an interrupted action or situation;
- describe parallel actions or situations;
- describe planned actions; or
- make polite requests.
Let’s have a closer look at each of these uses.
1. Describe an action or situation that continued during a period of time
Example: “Tom was studying English at college last year.”
This could be any period of time, and the action or situation doesn’t need to have continued for the entire stated period of time. For example, Tom may have been studying English at college for the whole year or for just part of the year.
2. Describe a continuous action or situation happening at a specific moment
Examples: “One afternoon at 4pm, he was looking for his glasses.”
“When he saw the librarian, she was tidying the bookshelves.”
The past continuous can describe what was happening at any specific point in time. You can specify the precise time (e.g., at 4pm), or if the context is already clear, you can omit it.
3. Describe a past habit or regular occurrence
Example: “He was always losing his glasses.”
The past continuous can describe something that used to happen often during a certain period of time. For example, when talking about what your friend was like five years ago, you could say, “he was eating a lot of meat in those days.” You can also describe an irregular occurrence by saying, “he was eating very little meat in those days.”
4. Describe an interrupted action or situation
Example: “I was taking notes when suddenly I heard children screaming.”
When you combine the past continuous with the past simple and the word when, it can mean that the past simple action interrupted the action or situation. It could mean that the continuous action immediately stopped, but not necessarily. For example, it’s possible that Tom continued to take notes even after he heard children screaming.
5. Describe concurrent actions or situations
Example: “I was wearing my glasses while I was reading in the library.”
The words while, when, and as can connect two past continuous clauses. This shows that both continuous actions or situations were happening at the same time.
6. Describe planned actions
Examples: “He was thinking of becoming a teacher.”
“Tom wasn’t planning on returning to the library.”
The past continuous can describe either a plan that someone had in the past but never acted on or even a plan that someone still has in the present. For example, if you’re reading the menu at a restaurant and your friend asks you what you’re going to order, you can say, “I was planning on getting the fish.”
7. Make polite requests or suggestions
Example: “Excuse me, I was wondering whether you could help me find my glasses?”
We can also use the past continuous just to soften a request or suggestion. You can use the verbs wondering, hoping, or thinking if you want to politely ask someone to pass you the salt, help you find your way home, or even ask someone out on a date!
For a more melodic way to learn past continuous, you can familiarize yourself with this memorable and catchy Past Continuous Song – Rockin’ English.
How do you form the past continuous tense?
Forming the past continuous is an integral part of learning English Grammar and other parts of speech.
subject + was/were + present participle
Tom was studying.
The children were screaming.
subject + was/were + not + present participle
She wasn’t watching TV.
They weren’t listening.
Affirmative closed interrogative
was/were + subject + present participle
Was she doing her homework?
Were they eating?
Negative closed interrogative
was/were + not + subject + present participle
Wasn’t she doing her homework?
Weren’t they eating?
Affirmative open interrogative
interrogative + was/were + subject + present participle
What were they eating?
Why was she doing her homework?
Negative open interrogative
interrogative + was/were + not + subject + present participle
What weren’t they eating?
Why wasn’t she doing her homework?
Is there anything else you should know about the past continuous tense?
There are four more important points to remember about using the past continuous tense.
1. Adding adverbs
Adverbs modify the meaning of any sentence. This is no different when using the past continuous. In fact, they are quite common (particularly adverbs of frequency to describe past habits). You can place adverbs in multiple spots in the sentence, but they never change the order of the rest of the structure.
Here are some examples:
- He was always losing his glasses.
- They were never listening.
- Were you still working late?
2. Non-continuous verbs
There are some verbs that we cannot use with any continuous tense. For example, it is incorrect to say “I was being a student” or “He wasn’t liking the coffee.” In these cases, you should generally use the past simple instead. Other non-continuous verbs are need, want, love, hate, and own, among many others.
All of these kinds of verbs are stative verbs because they describe a state (e.g. to be in a state of need or want). But there are some stative verbs that you can use in continuous tenses because they sometimes describe an action. For example, we cannot use the stative verb care in the past continuous tense, but we can use the same verb if you use it to mean to look after.
INCORRECT I wasn’t caring for the soup on Tuesday.
CORRECT I wasn’t caring for my grandfather on Tuesday.
In the first example, caring is a stative verb that expresses dislike for the soup, so the sentence is incorrect. But in the second example, caring is a dynamic verb that expresses the action of looking after someone. Be careful when using these verbs in the past continuous tense!
3. Only was/were makes the past continuous
You cannot replace the past form of “be” with the past form of any other verb without changing it to the past simple tense. For example, “she began laughing” is the past simple because the main verb is the past form of “begin.” To turn it into the past continuous, you need to say “she was beginning to laugh” or “she was laughing.”
4. Passive voice
A past continuous sentence sometimes also uses a passive voice rather than an active voice. With the passive voice, there are three essential changes: the object replaces the subject, the present participle is always ‘being‘, and a past participle comes immediately afterward.
|ACTIVE||Sally was singing the song.|
|PASSIVE||The song was being sung by Sally.|
|ACTIVE||Why wasn’t Sally singing the song?|
|PASSIVE||Why wasn’t the song being sung by Sally?|
Past continuous exercises
Unscramble the sentences.
- working / yesterday / was / she / .
- was / shopping / about / going / I / thinking / .
- eating / watching TV / were you / you were / while / ?
- usually / Tom / not / driving / was / .
- being / millions of people / the news / by / watched / was / .
Past continuous exercise answers
- She was working yesterday.
- I was thinking about going shopping.
- Were you watching television while you were eating? OR Were you eating while you were watching television?
- Tom was not usually driving.
- The news was being watched by millions of people.
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