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Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Past Continuous Tense - Examples, Rules and Exercise


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The Meaning of Past Continuous Tense

The past continuous tense is used to describe actions that began in the past and often continued for a short period of time after the action started. This tense describes actions or events that happened at a specific time in the past. These actions are usually no longer happening at the time the sentence is being said or written.

The past continuous (past progressive) is a verb tense which is used to show that an ongoing past action was happening at a specific moment of interruption, or that two ongoing actions were happening at the same time. Read on for detailed descriptions, examples, and past continuous exercises.


Past continuous tense expresses the actions or task that were ongoing in the past. We cannot determine when the action started or finished. For example, When I was walking yesterday, it started raining.


The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and were still going on when another event occurred.


The past continuous tense refers to a continuing action or state that was happening at some point in the past. The past continuous tense is formed by combining the past tense of to be (i.e., was/were) with the verb’s present participle (-ing word).

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 verbmain verb
He, she, itwasnothelpingMary.
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:

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 explodedI was walking past it.
The car explodedwhileI was walking past it.
WhileI was walking past the carit 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.


Past Continuous Uses

USE 1 Interrupted Action in the Past

past continuous interrupted action

Use the past continuous to indicate that a longer action in the past was interrupted. The interruption is usually a shorter action in the simple past. Remember this can be a real interruption or just an interruption in time.


  • was watching TV when she called.
  • When the phone rang, she was writing a letter.
  • While we were having the picnic, it started to rain.
  • What were you doing when the earthquake started?
  • was listening to my iPod, so I didn't hear the fire alarm.
  • You were not listening to me when I told you to turn the oven off.
  • While John was sleeping last night, someone stole his car.
  • Sammy was waiting for us when we got off the plane.
  • While I was writing the email, the computer suddenly went off.
  • A: What were you doing when you broke your leg?
    B: I was snowboarding.

USE 2 Specific Time as an Interruption

past continuous specific time

In USE 1, described above, the past continuous is interrupted by a shorter action in the simple past. However, you can also use a specific time as an interruption.


  • Last night at 6 PM, I was eating dinner.
  • At midnight, we were still driving through the desert.
  • Yesterday at this time, I was sitting at my desk at work.


In the simple past, a specific time is used to show when an action began or finished. In the past continuous, a specific time only interrupts the action.


  • Last night at 6 PM, I ate dinner.
    I started eating at 6 PM.
  • Last night at 6 PM, I was eating dinner.
    I started earlier; and at 6 PM, I was in the process of eating dinner.

USE 3 Parallel Actions

past continuous parallel actions

When you use the past continuous with two actions in the same sentence, it expresses the idea that both actions were happening at the same time. The actions are parallel.


  • was studying while he was making dinner.
  • While Ellen was reading, Tim was watching television.
  • Were you listening while he was talking?
  • wasn't paying attention while I was writing the letter, so I made several mistakes.
  • What were you doing while you were waiting?
  • Thomas wasn't working, and I wasn't working either.
  • They were eating dinner, discussing their plans, and having a good time.

USE 4 Atmosphere

In English, we often use a series of parallel actions to describe the atmosphere at a particular time in the past.


  • When I walked into the office, several people were busily typing, some were talking on the phones, the boss was yelling directions, and customers were waiting to be helped. One customer was yelling at a secretary and waving his hands. Others were complaining to each other about the bad service.

USE 5 Repetition and Irritation with Always

past continuous repetition always

The past continuous with words such as always or constantly expresses the idea that something irritating or shocking often happened in the past. The concept is very similar to the expression used to but with negative emotion. Remember to put the words always or constantly between be and verb+ing.


  • She was always coming to class late.
  • He was constantly talking. He annoyed everyone.
  • I didn't like them because they were always complaining.



Watch the following Videos:






QUIZ - Past Continuous Tense

You can do this grammar quiz. It tests what you learned on the Past Continuous page.

1. My brother and sister _____ playing tennis at 11am yesterday.


2. _____ you still working at 7pm last night?


3. At 8.30am today I _____ driving to work.


4. We _____ sleeping when the police came.


5. Why _____ he having lunch at 4pm?


6. Was he not _____ his homework?


7. Snow _____ lightly. Suddenly a reindeer appeared.

 was falling
 is falling

8. Somebody threw a shoe at him _____ he was speaking.


9. They ________ TV when I arrived.

 were watching
 were watched

10. I was reading a detective story _____ I heard a noise.