Past Continuous Tense

Past Continuous - Woman was sitting in lotus position under cherry tree

I had a wonderful time last morning. I was sitting in a park. The sun was shining, and the birds were singing. The cherry flowers were blooming. It was very peaceful.

1. Introduction

The Past Continuous means that at a time in the past, we were in the middle of an action. Study the following conversation.

Melanie: I rang at about three yesterday afternoon, but you weren’t in. I didn’t know where you were.
David: Oh, I was helping Mike. We were repairing his car. It took ages. We were working on it all afternoon.
Melanie: It was raining. I hope you weren’t doing it outside
David: No, we were in the garage. So I didn’t get wet. But I’m afraid I got oil all over my new trousers.
Melanie: Why were you wearing your new trousers to repair a car?
David: I don’t know. I forgot I had them on.

2. How do we make the Past Continuous Tense?

POSITIVE

Subject + was/were not + Ving

NEGATIVE

Subject + was/were not + V-ing

QUESTION

Was/Were + Subject + V-ing

  • He was studying English
  • I was listening to music
  • He wasn’t studying English
  • I was not listening to music
  • Was she studying English?
  • Was he listening to music?
  • They were studying English
  • We were listening to music
  • They weren’t studying English
  • We weren’t listening to music
  • Were they studying English?
  • Were you listening to music?

 3. How do we use the Past Continuous Tense?

An action at a specific time

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:

At 8pm yesterday, I was watching a film on TV. (The film started at 7pm and finished at 9pm. And 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 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 simple past 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 Tense + Simple Past Tense

We often use the past continuous tense with the simple past tense. We use the past continuous tense to express a long action. And we use the simple past tense 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 tense

2. short action (telephoned), expressed with simple past tense

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 [at 8pm].)

We use:

  • when + short action (simple past tense)
  • while + long action (past continuous tense)

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.

Special Note:

We use the  continuous tense with actions. We do not normally use it with state verbs. For state verbs, we use the Past Simple

  • I wasn’t knowing where you went for dinner. (Wrong)
  • I didn’t know where you went for dinner. (Right)

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