PAST CONTINUOUS TENSE
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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, 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.
MORE ISSUES ON PAST CONTINUOUS TENSE
Past Continuous Uses
USE 1 Interrupted Action in the Past
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.
- I 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?
- I 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
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
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.
- I was studying while he was making dinner.
- While Ellen was reading, Tim was watching television.
- Were you listening while he was talking?
- I 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
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.