What is the Past Continuous tense? (or Past Progressive)

What is the Past Continuous tense? (= Past Progressive)


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The Past Continuous in English is also called past progressive.

The simple present (I do) has its continuous present (I am doing).

The simple past (I did) therefore has its continuous past (I was doing).

In this lesson we will focus on the past continuous tense in English). It is sometimes called progressive past, continuous preterite or progressive preterite but don’t get me wrong, it’s exactly the same thing!

1/ Construction of the Past Continuous tense in English:

‘to be’ in Past Simple (WAS / WERE) + verbal basis + ING

  • I / he / she / it   was     playing, having, moving
  • we / you / they   were     doing, reading, writing

2/ What’s the difference between past simple and past continuous?

Look at the following example:

  • Past simple: I had lunch at noon yesterday
  • Past continuous: I was having lunch at noon yesterday

3/ What’s the purpose of the past continuous in English?

>> It is used to talk about an action in progress at a past time:

  • We were waiting at the café.

>> It is also used to say that an ongoing action has been interrupted (then you can find Simple Past in the sentence):

  • I was drinking at the bar when she called me.
  • I hurt my leg while I was running in the park.
  • He phoned me when we were having lunch.
  • It was snowing when I went out.

>> When two actions have occurred at the same time, without having any influence on each other (we often use ‘while‘):

  • John was watching TV while Linda was reading a book.
  • I was studying while he was making dinner.
  • While Dave was sleeping last night, someone stole his car.
  • What were you doing while you were waiting?
  • They were drinking beer, talking about life, and having fun.

>> Past actions that irritate the speaker:

  • Bob was always complaining.
  • She was constantly repeating the same story.

>> Past actions that were often repeated:

  • He was jogging around the lake every day.

>> To describe a person in the past:

  • When I saw him he was wearing a hat.
  • The thief was wearing a black hood.

4/ The past continuous in a negative sentences:

  • I was not talking to you (= I was’t talking football)
  • You were not playing football (= You weren’t playing football)
  • They were not dancing at the party (= They weren’t dancing at the party)

5/ Ask questions with the past continuous:

  • Was I playing football ?
  • Why were you not watching football ?
  • What were they doing when the show started?

6/ active / passive form

  • The thief was stealing the diamond when the police arrived (Active)
  • The diamond was being stolen by the thief when the police arrived (Passive)

⚠ Some verbs are not normally used in the past continuous (in the present continuous tense either) with a few exceptions. The list is not complete but here are the main ones:

love / like / know / want / need / seem / mean / prefer / belong / understand / consist / suppose / remember / realise / forget / notice… 

  • I needed to go to the doctor (NOT ‘I was needing…‘)
  • I loved this movie ! (NOT ‘I was loving this movie‘)
  • We wanted to go out but it was raining (NOT ‘we were wanting…‘)

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