What is the past continuous tense? And how does it function in the English language? What are the grammar rules that govern the past continuous tense? Learn everything you need to know in this comprehensive guide.
What is Past Continuous?
Past continuous is a tense that is utilized to describe an action in the past that was either incomplete at that time or still continuing to happen. It can also refer to actions that were habitual or happening regularly in the past. As the action was still progressing at the time and is being referred to now, past continuous is also called the past progressive tense. It is known as imperfect tense in the Latin and French languages.
She was happily singing while walking back home yesterday.
The trains were running dreadfully late last year.
The Cambridge dictionary describes the past continuous tense thus. It refers to an action that was being performed by someone or an event that was still happening at a certain time in the past. The Collins dictionary explains it as a verb form with the following construct.
The past tense of the auxiliary “be” is combined with the present participle of a verb. This is done to specify a deed that was either incomplete or still in progress on a particular reference point in the past.
Example: She was cooking when the children returned home.
What are the other tenses?
In the English language, there are three primary tenses. They are the present, past and future tenses. These three tenses have four sub-types under them each. They are:
It is the basic tense in English. It refers to an action or phenomenon (or multiple ones) that is habitually occurring or one that is occurring right now. Except for “be”, it uses the base form for all verbs with the exception of third person singular. The third-person singular appends an “s” to the base verb.
- I complete all my homework on time.
- Andrew completes all his homework on time.
- It rains heavily in November every year.
Present simple also applies to facts and statements that are unchangeable and eternally true.
Example: Truth always triumphs.
We use the present continuous tense to describe events that are currently happening at the moment.
Example: The sun is shining brightly.
It is also used to describe two other kinds of actions.
A) An event that doesn’t have to be literally happening right now, but is occurring for the last few days and will continue for a few more.
- I am taking the tram these days.
- Adam is taking piano lessons.
B) An event for which a fixed plan exists in the immediate or near future.
Example: We are moving to the suburbs this December.
This tense describes an action that was initiated in the past. However, it either continues to happen in the present or still has a connection now.
I have known Sara for three years.
James has lived in India. He knows the country well.
This tense is utilized to explain an event or action that started in the past and continues to happen now. It is also known as the present perfect progressive tense.
- They have been living here since June last year.
- Mary has been hitting the gym regularly of late.
Also known as preterite tense, the past simple tense denotes an action or event that happened in the past.
- I was really scared being all alone in the house yesterday.
- Rita visited the bank last week
This is the main topic and we have discussed this earlier.
This tense is employed to state an action or event that had been completed before another point in time in the past. It is also known as the pluperfect tense.
- We reached the airport late due to heavy traffic and the flight had already left.
- That man was a complete stranger. He had never visited us before.
Past Perfect Continuous:
This tense is used while describing actions or events that began in the past and were continuing till another specific time in the past. The actions began and ended all in the past, and don’t continue in the present.
- I had been watching TV all day yesterday.
- It had been raining cats and dogs last week.
A future tense is employed to denote an action or event that has not happened yet but is expected to in the future. It is also known as the “will tense” because of the use of the modal auxiliary verb “will”.
I will go to the plaza next Sunday.
It will definitely rain heavily tomorrow.
This is a tense that is used to indicate an event that will be happening over an extent of time in the future.
- We will be writing our final examination next Monday.
- I will be travelling solo through the Midwest next month.
This tense is utilized to describe an action that would have been executed at a time point in the future. It is like talking about a past deed but in the future.
- You can come to my house at 5 PM tomorrow. I will have completed my homework by then.
- By the time we reach the train station tomorrow, the train will have arrived.
This tense is similar to the future perfect tense, but it indicates events that were happening for a particular duration.
Example: Chris will have been reading for 5 hours when the flight lands in Sydney.
Another way to describe the future perfect continuous tense is like reflecting on the past but from the future.
Example: When April comes next year, I will have been working in this company for seven years.
How is it different?
The past continuous tense is different from the other forms of continuous tenses for the following reason. It is used to indicate that a continuous action that was happening in the past was interrupted. The interruption can be another action or event that happened in the simple past.
I was watching Netflix when the pizza delivery boy rang my doorbell.
Catherine was preparing dinner when I returned home from the office.
|Present simple||Helps to describe habits, facts, actions, and truth that are not affected by time||Ist form of verb + s/es||He loves pizza.|
|Past simple||Helps to describe events that have happened in the past||IInd form of the verb||She wore a beautiful dress for the party.|
|Future simple||Helps to describe events that will happen in the future||Will/ shall + Ist form||He will go to New York tomorrow.|
|Present perfect||Helps to describe the relevance of past events in the present moment||Has/ have + IIIrd form of the verb||I have learned to ride a bike.|
|Past perfect||Helps to describe events that happened prior to other events in the past||Had + IIIrd form of the verb||She had finished the paper before leaving the hall.|
|Future perfect||Helps to describe events that will be completed between now and a specific point in the future||Will/ have + IIIrd form of the verb||She will have finished the book by tomorrow.|
|Present continuous||Helps to describe ongoing actions||Is/ am/ are + Ist form + ing||“She is reading a book.|
|Past continuous||Helps to describe ongoing events of the past, mostly in relation to another event||Was/ were + Ist form + ing||He was driving to work when the accident happened.|
|Future continuous||Helps to describe future events that will/are expected to continue for a period of time||Will be + Ist form + ing||I will be going to meet my grandparents tomorrow.|
|Present perfect continuous||Helps to describe events that started in the past and will continue into the present||Has/ have been + Ist form + ing||She has been writing a book for the past one year.|
|Past perfect continuous||Helps to describe events that began, continued, and ended in the past||Had been + Ist form + ing||I had been working in this company for ten years when I got the promotion.|
|Future perfect continuous||Helps to describe events that began in the past but will continue until a point in the future||Will/ shall have been + Ist form + ing||I will have been doing business with her for one year.|
How to use Past Simple
As we saw earlier, the past simple tense is employed to express an event or action that happened in the past. The said event might be a short one or it might as well be a long one.
Yesterday, the lights went out at 4 pm. (Short incident)
I owned a racing car for almost a decade. (Long incident)
For positive sentences, the construct is very simple. The base verb is just conjugated to the simple past form, and there is no auxiliary verb in the sentence.
I walked to my school.
Dave ran as fast as he could to escape from the chasing dog.
For negative sentences and questions, the simple past form of the auxiliary verb “do” (did) is used along with the base form of the main verb. In the case of a negative sentence, “not” is inserted between the auxiliary and main verbs.
Example: I [did] [not] see her yesterday.
For questions, the auxiliary verb and the subject are interchanged.
Example:[Did] [you] go to the office yesterday?
If the main verb in the sentence is “be”, then the rules are different.
There is no auxiliary verb for positives, negatives, and questions. Just the main verb (be) is conjugated to the past simple form. “Not” is inserted for negative sentences after the main verb. And the main verb and the subject are interchanged in questions.
I was there at the stadium yesterday.
She was [not] in town last week.
Was he among those who attended the convention?
Past continuous versus past simple
Past simple tense is used for an event that had happened or finished happening at a particular time in the past. The past continuous tense on the other hand is employed to denote an event that was still happening (was still in progress) at a particular time in the past.
I visited the local zoo yesterday afternoon. (Simple Past)
She was joined by her brother while walking to school yesterday morning. (Simple Past)
I was still watching television when the rest of the family went to sleep last Sunday. (Past Continuous)
Interrupted action in the past
Past continuous tense can also imply that the unfinished action was either referenced or interrupted by another event that was in the simple past.
Example: Julie was attending a phone call when her parents were at the doorstep.
Specific time as interruption
In the past continuous tense, the interrupting action or event can be replaced by a particular time.
It was raining heavily at 11 PM last night.
During June last year, I was still struggling with my foundation classes in computer science.
We had seen previously that the referencing or interrupting event (in the past continuous example) was in the simple past. In other words, the continuously happening lengthy event (in the past) was interrupted by a short and quick event (also in the past). But the interrupting or referencing event can also be another continuous event instead of a short one. In such cases, the interrupting event will also be in past continuous.
Donald was doing the car wash when his sister Mitchell was helping their father with gardening.
Matt was buying snacks at the food court when Kate was proceeding to the sitting area inside the cinema hall.
Another interesting use of the past continuous tense is its use as a tool in creating an atmosphere around the main event. It can be employed to describe the scene or prevailing mood around the main action.
Example: When Sheila entered the classroom, Robert was merrily chatting with Kelly. Paul was scribbling something on this notebook pensively. Joe was texting on his mobile phone furtively, and most of her classmates were having a good time filled with amusement as the teacher had not yet arrived.
Repetition and irritation with “always”
The adverbs like “always” and “constantly”, which act as ‘time expressions’, can imply a negative mood when used with the past continuous tense. They give a sense that the speaker is annoyed by the condition that is expressed in the sentence.
Roy was constantly arguing with his friends.
Our class teacher was always censuring the students.
Grammar rules for Past Continuous
It’s about time we learnt how to construct a sentence in the past continuous tense. It is a simple construct that can be easily remembered. First, we take the verb “be” and conjugate it to the past tense according to the gender, person, and number of the subject. Then we add the present participle of the main verb to it.
Jenny [was] playing badminton with Viola.
I [was] walking along the streets.
They [were] whispering among themselves.
While vs when
While writing a clause such as ‘while’ or ‘when’ in a sentence, we should remember the following. If a ‘when’ clause is used then the following action should be in simple past.
Example: It was raining [when] we reached the bus station.
But when ‘while’ is used in the clause, then the action following it should be in past continuous.
Example: [While] I was reading a book, the doorbell rang.
Non-continuous verbs and mixed verbs
Non-continuous verbs are verbs that cannot be used in progressive/continuous tense.
I am hating you.
I hate you. (correct)
I am believing you are wrong.
I believe you are wrong. (correct)
Mixed verbs are those that exhibit dual behavior. They can be used as normal verbs as well as non-continuous verbs.
Jim appears confounded. (Non-continuous verb)
America’s favorite talk show host is appearing on the tonight show tonight. (Normal verb)
With these non-continuous verbs and certain non-continuous forms of mixed verbs, the past continuous tense should not be used. Instead, the simple past tense should be used for these verbs.
I was being at the church when we heard the good news.
I was at the church when we heard the good news. (correct)
I was hating it when he did that to me.
I hated it when he did that to me. (correct)
Adverbs like never, only, ever, just, always, etc. are often used in past continuous constructs. They should be placed between the past tense conjugate of ‘be’ and the present participle verb.
They were [always] complaining about the quality of the food in the college mess.
Betsy was [constantly] calling her dad on the phone while waiting at the airport.
Active and passive voice
To construct a past continuous sentence in the active voice, the following structure should be followed.
Subject + [simple past conjugate of ‘Be’] + [present participle of verb] + Object
a) He was delivering a presentation.
b) She was driving a car.
c) They were watching a movie.
To make the same sentence in passive voice:
Object + [simple past conjugate of ‘Be’] + [Being] + [past participle of verb] + [Subject]
a) A presentation was being delivered by him.
b) A car was being driven by her.
c) A movie was being watched by them
Note that the simple past conjugate of “Be” is dependent on the subject in the active voice and on the object in the passive voice (example c).
Examples of Past Continuous
- We were watching television when Miranda called. (Active, Positive)
- They were not playing in the playground when the announcement came. (Active, Negative)
- Were you not attending the classes yesterday afternoon? (Active, Questioning)
- The investment banker was being watched by federal authorities for the whole of last week. (Passive, Positive)
- The rugby players were not being treated well during their continental tour. (Passive, Negative)
- Were the patients not being treated with adequate care by the doctors? (Passive, Questioning)
Past continuous exercises
Fill in the blanks with the appropriate past continuous tense verb.
1) The students____ books in the library. (Read)
2) The judge____the verdict on the case. (Pronounce)
3) The guitarist____his guitar in front of the audience. (Play)
4) Melinda___her car too fast when the traffic cop motioned her to stop. (Drive)
5) You___when I visited your home yesterday. (Sleep)
Convert the following sample sentences into the past continuous tense.
1) Johanna draws a painting.
2) Tom listens to pop music.
3) I will go to California.
4) They will watch a movie together.
5) You played rather well at the tournament.
1) The students were reading books in the library.
2) The judge was pronouncing the verdict on the case.
3) The guitarist was playing his guitar in front of the audience.
4) Melinda was driving her car too fast when the traffic cop motioned her to stop.
5) You were sleeping when I visited your home yesterday.
1) Johanna was drawing a painting.
2) Tom was listening to pop music.
3) I was going to California.
4) They were watching a movie together.
5) You were playing rather well at the tournament.
More exercises can be found at:
1) Past Continuous Exercise 1 – Perfect English Grammar
2) Past Continuous Tense Exercises – Byju’s
1) Past Continuous Tense | Grammarly
3) Grammar 101: Understanding verb tenses – IDP IELTS
4) Past Simple tense – Grammar – EnglishClub
5) Simple past and past continuous – English Grammar
6) Past Continuous Tense | ENGLISH PAGE
7) Advanced Level: Past Continuous Tense | Learn English
8) Past continuous for frequently repeated actions in the past | Grammaring
9) Past Continuous Tense: Rules And Examples – Thesaurus.com
10) Past continuous ( I was working ) – English Grammar Today
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