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

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

Feel free to leave a comment if you find any errors or if you have any suggestions to make to improve this lesson.

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 caf√©.

>> 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¬†wasn’t¬†talking to you)
  • 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)

ūüĎČ 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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