As you probably already know, there is more than one past tense in English. If you already know the rules of past simple, then it’s time to look into another tense known as the past continuous. This is a little trickier than the past simple, because it has more uses.
First, let’s look at how it’s formed, and this is very similar to the present continuous, as you might expect.
To make the past continuous we need TWO things – we use the verb ‘to be’ in its past form (was/were), and put ‘ing’ after the main verb.
‘He was singing loudly.’
Remember that with he/she/it we need the verb to end in ‘s’. We use ‘was’. The difference here though, is that ‘was’ also comes with ‘I’ as a subject:
You were (plural)
Then we need our ‘ing’ at the end of the main verb.
‘She was walking.’
‘They were sleeping.’
‘It was eating.’
So how do we change this into the question and negative forms of the past continuous?
First, to form the negative, we simply insert ‘not’ after the verb ‘to be’.
‘She was not playing in the garden yesterday.’
‘They were not cooking earlier.’
We usually make this into the shorter version, so was not becomes wasn’t and were not becomes weren’t.
When you want to make the question, like in other tenses, we switch the first two words of the sentence around.
‘Was she playing in the garden?’
The verb ‘to be’ now comes FIRST, and then the subject comes SECOND.
So, why don’t we just use the past simple all the time?
Well, the past continuous has some special uses, which makes it a little different. Let’s look at each use in turn:
- When two past actions overlap. Sometimes we call this an interrupted action:
‘Susie was swimming at the beach when she saw the boys come and steal her handbag.’
Two actions are happening here and both are now finished.
- Susie was swimming – first action.
- The boys stole her handbag – second action.
Imagine this as long and short. The long action, which usually comes first in the sentence but not always, is that Susie is swimming. Maybe she was swimming for about 30 minutes. The short action comes and interrupts the long action and is much shorter, probably just a few seconds! I like to tell my students to imagine a long piece of string and then a pair of scissors coming in and cutting the string. The swimming is the long piece of string and the boys are the scissors. I know, it’s a strange way of looking at it – but I’m told it makes it much easier to learn!
The present continuous allows us to understand which action happened first, and which action happened second. It let’s us make sense of a timeline. For this reason, writers use the past continuous a lot when writing novels, to help the reader see exactly what is going on, and when.
This brings us to our second use:
- Telling a story:
‘It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining brightly and the birds were chirping. Abdullah got out of his car.’
Again there are two actions, one long and one short, but this time there is no interruption.
- The sun was shining and the birds were chirping – first action and longer action.
- Abdullah got out of his car – second action and shorter action.
We use the past continuous here to set the scene of the story. If you flick through an English novel, you’ll see lots of examples of this – often on the first page.
- Past habits:
We use the past continuous to talk about past habits that we no longer have, because these habits were continuous and not just once at a specific time. Let’s look at an example:
‘He was always walking with the dog.’
‘In those days she was constantly playing the guitar.’
It’s clear that because we use ‘was’ and ‘in those day’, these actions aren’t happening anymore, but they were part of an old routine.
- When talking about longer actions:
When someone asks you what you did today, we can either choose to use past simple or past continuous, depending on the length of the action. For example:
Laura: ‘What did you do today?’
Sarah: ‘I was working in the garden for half of the day and then studying all evening. I managed to have lunch in between, though.’
Sarah mentions three actions here – working in the garden, studying all evening and having lunch. Can you tell which actions are longer and which actions are shorter?
Sarah spends a few hours in the garden and then a few hours studying, but interrupts all of this to eat lunch, which is a shorter action and doesn’t require a few hours. We need to understand which actions happened first, which ones happened second, and whether there is any overlap. If we only used past simple to talk about all of this, we would have less information. Therefore, the past continuous has extra uses to help us make sense of all this.
- Parallel actions
The final use of the past continuous is when we talk about actions that are all happening at the same time. For instance:
‘While she was doing her homework, her brother was playing football.’
As you can see, now there is no short action – only two long actions happening simultaneously.
So, now that we’ve gone through the various uses of the past continuous, let’s try a little exercise to see how well you understood it:
For this exercise you will need to choose either to use the past continuous form of the verb provided, or the past simple form. If you need to brush up on your knowledge of the past simple, check out our blog post on it! Remember to check the uses above to help you with these questions, and don’t forget to scroll down to check whether your answers are correct or not!
- Barbara _________________ (live) in Paris when she was younger.
- I __________________ (write) my blog on the Internet while you _______________ (sleep).
- When I _________________ (leave) the office, the phone _____________ (ring).
- David ____________________ (call) while I __________________ (park) the car.
- It __________________ (snow) in the mountains when we got up yesterday.
- Somebody _________________ (knock) on the front door while I _____________ (read) the newspaper.
- When I ________________ (arrive) at the wedding, Sara _______________ (introduce) herself to some people.
- Richard _________________ (teach) at the university when he ______________ (meet) his wife.
- Barbara was living (live) in Paris when she was younger.
- I was writing (write) my blog on the Internet while you were sleeping (sleep).
- When I was leaving (leave) the office, the phone rang (ring).
- David called (call) while I was parking (park) the car.
- It was snowing (snow) in the mountains when we got up yesterday.
- Somebody knocked (knock) on the front door while I was reading (read) the newspaper.
- When I arrived (arrive) at the wedding, Sara was introducing (introduce) herself to some people.
- Richard was teaching (teach) at the university when he met (meet) his wife.