The Past Continuous tense is one of the most used tenses we have in English. In this lesson, we learn when to use the Past Continuous tense, how to use it, and its different usages
NOTE: the Past Continuous tense is commonly known as the Past Progressive tense either.
When to use the Past Continuous tense?
We use the Past Continuous tense when we want to talk about what was happening at a particular time in the past. Imagine you just got home from a party, and your father confronts you. He tells you that he had been waiting for you for an hour and asks, “What were you doing when I called you?”
Now, you are going to use the Past Continuous tense to frame the answer to the question as he is asking about what you were doing that time.
• My phone was getting charged, and I was discussing something with Ron.
• I was eating dinner.
• I was driving the car.
Notice in all these sentences, we are using the Past Continuous tense to talk about what was happening at a certain time in the past. We haven’t mentioned the past time marker as he (father) already knows the time.
Structure: subject + was/were + V1+ing + past time marker
WAS: singular subjects (I, he, she, it & singular noun names)
WERE: plural subjects (We, they, you & plural noun names)
PAST TIME MARKERS: last night, yesterday, in the morning, two hours ago, 7 pm, when you called, some time back, last year, last month, etc.
• I was partying with my friends last night.
• He was sleeping when you called.
• They were playing cricket in the morning.
• She was calling me an hour ago.
• My friends were talking about you last night.
• Were you sleeping in the exam room?
• Some kids were fighting in front of my house.
Note: It’s important to mention the time of the action in the Past Continuous tense. If the time of the action is not mentioned, understand that it is understood by the listener or the reader.
Now, let’s look at all the usages of the Past Continuous tense in English.
1. An ongoing action in the past
This is the most common usage of the Past Continuous tense to talk about what was continuing/happening at a certain time in the past.
- She was teaching digital marketing.
- I was talking to your mother in the morning.
- Yesterday at the time, I was writing an article.
- They were drinking on the terrace last night.
- He was talking to students one by one between 7 pm and 8 pm.
- At 11 ‘0 clock, we were eating dinner.
- What were you doing 10 minutes ago?
NOTE: you can use another past action (simple past tense) to refer to the time of the action.
- We were partying when you were in the office.
- When she reached the station, I was watching my favorite series: FRIENDS.
2. Interrupted action
We commonly use the Past Continuous tense to talk about actions that were going on in the past and got interrupted by a short action (shorter than the progressive action) in the Simple past tense..
- I was sleeping when you called.
(The continuous action of sleeping got interrupted/stopped because of another action: you called.)
- We were watching movies when my parents came back home.
- She was eating dinner when the bell rang.
- They were playing games on their phones when the boss entered into the meeting.
3. Multiple progressive actions (parallel actions)
We also use this tense to talk about two or more actions happening simultaneously at some time in the past.
- While you were playing games on your phone, I was taking notes.
- While all of you were enjoying the food, I was working hard on my project.
- Last night, we were drinking on the terrace, making fun of each other, calling each other by funny names, and playing games.
- Ron was doing his homework while Nancy was talking to her friends.
4. To paint a picture of a past scene
We could also use the Past Continuous tense to talk about the scene or the atmosphere of an event in the past.
- When I entered the office, my manager was shouting at my team, the HR was explaining the company’s policy to a freshman, some employees were talking to their clients, and the others were sitting idle.
- When the party started, everyone was having fun. Some people were dancing; some were having snacks; my friends were sitting in a circle and cracking jokes at each other; waiters were serving food at the tables, and a man was yelling at a woman who seemed like his wife.
5. Habitual action in the past
We can also use the past continuous tense to talk about actions that were repeated in the past using constantly and always.
- As much as I can recall, he was always cracking jokes and making everybody laugh.
- She was always coming late to the class and irritating the teacher.
- My mother was constantly giving me lectures on the importance of food at the time of eating dinner.
- Jenny was always changing her boyfriends.
|Subject||Auxiliary verb (was/were)||Present participle (V1+ing)||object/modifier|
|I||was||sleeping||at this time yesterday.|
|Subject||was/were + not||Present participle (V1+ing)||object/modifier|
|He||was not||working out||in the morning.|
|Was/were||subject||Present participle (V1+ing)||object/modifier + ?|
Note: we can use question words (what, where, when, why, how) before the auxiliary verb.
- What were you doing with my laptop the other day?
- Why was he arguing with you?
- When were you making this project?
- Where were they partying last night?
- How was she doing it?
The Past Continuous tense + the Simple past tense
We generally use the Simple past tense with the Past Continuous tense in two cases:
- When the Simple past tense refers to a specific time when the continuous tense was taking place.
- When the Simple past tense interrupts the continuous tense.
- I was sleeping. (Past continuous)
- He woke up. (Simple past)
We can combine these sentences together and use the simple past tense to refer to a specific time when the ongoing action was happening. We will use the conjunction ‘when’ before the simple past tense.
- I was sleeping when he woke up.
- When he woke up, I was sleeping.
Notice “when you woke up” is also referring to a past time, working as a past time marker.
- I was sleeping. (Past continuous)
- You rang the bell. (Simple past)
Let’s join them together.
- I was sleeping when you rang the bell.
- When you rang the bell, I was sleeping.
Notice “when you rang the bell” is referring to a past action that interrupts the continuous action. I was sleeping until something happened (you rang the bell).
WHILE vs WHEN
Both while and when are used in the beginning of a clause. ‘When’ is generally used before a clause in simple past tense and while is used before a clause showing past continuous tense. Look at the following examples to understand their usages in the past tense:
- While I was recording a lesson, a bike exploded outside my house.
- I was recording a lesson when a bike exploded outside my house.
Both the sentences render the same meaning but are focusing on different parts. The first one is emphasizing the longer action (past continuous tense), and the second one is focusing on the shorter action (simple past tense).
- I was writing a book last year. (active voice)
- He was beating the kids. (active voice)
- A book was being written by me last year. (passive voice)
- The kids were being by him. (passive voice)
Detailed post on the Past Continuous tense (active to passive voice).