Level: beginner

The past continuous is made from the past tense of the verb be and the –ing form of a verb:

I was
You were
He was
She was
It was
We were
You were
They were

working
playing
living
talking

etc.

We use the past continuous to talk about the past:

  • for something which happened before and after another action:

The children were doing their homework when I got home.

Compare: The children did their homework when (= after) I got home.

This use of the past continuous is very common at the beginning of a story:

The other day I was waiting for a bus when …
Last week, as I was driving to work, … 

  • for something that happened before and after a specific time:

It was eight o'clock. I was writing a letter.

Compare: At eight o'clock I wrote (= started writing) some letters.

  • to show that something continued for some time:

My head was aching.
Everyone was shouting.

  • for something that happened again and again:

was practising every day, three times a day.
They were meeting secretly after school.
They were always quarrelling.

  • with verbs which show change or growth:

The children were growing up quickly.
Her English was improving.
My hair was going grey.
The town was changing quickly.

We do not normally use the past continuous with stative verbs. We use the past simple instead:

When I got home, I really needed (NOT was needinga shower.

Past continuous

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Past continuous and past simple

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Level: intermediate

Past continuous and hypotheses

We can also use the past continuous to refer to the present or future in hypotheses (when we imagine something). See these pages:

Comments

Thank you, Kirk.
Best Regards, Oleg

Thanks a lot, Kirk.

Thank you, Kirk. But would you tell me if I can say 'I was waiting for 2 hours that day/week/morning' without relative clause in case I go on with a few more sentences as follows 'During that period of time a few fully packed busses just passed by.

Hello gerol2000,

Yes, that is fine. The action in the past continuous is in progress as the other event takes place.

Generally, when we use the past continuous it forms the background to other events. These can be specific (as in your examples) or implied, which is why we often use the past continuous to establish background situations (It was raining).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you, Peter.

Thank you very much for your explanations. One thing is certain, English is not easy at all!

thank you. I have another question: is there any difference in meaning between "they were meeting secretely after school" and "they met secretely after school" for example yesterday, every week, etc. Is it possible to use either past simple or past continuous in this example, without difference in meaning?

Hello... I´ve seen your comment. It´s too late, and you have probably already find the solution for your uestion. But just in case, here is my opinion: When saying "they were meeting secretly after school", you are expressing that this was something they did once and again... a repeated action, but also a temporary action or habit in the past. Instead, in "They met secretly after school", the reflected idea is that it happened only once, or that it was a steady habit in the past, (not temporary). Both uses are correct, but they express different ideas. Hope it was useful!

Hello anouk,

The context would determine which form you should use here. For example, if you're just speaking about a routine habit all last year, the past simple would probably be the best. But imagine, for example, that you thought your daughter had been going to her friend's and her boyfriend to his job after school, but just found out that they'd been meeting. In this case, by saying 'They were meeting secretly' as you were explaining it to your partner, their meetings weren't just a routine habit for you -- they were something you don't approve of that happened again and again in that particular time period. Using the past continuous helps communicate this.

That, of course, is just one situation -- there are an infinite number of other ones that could call for the use of the past continuous or the past simple.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

could it be that "I was practising" every day is used because you find it annoying,because you didn`t want to practise and "I practised every day" is neutral? I am asking, because present simple is used for habits, and doing something every day is a habit. That is what I don`t understand. Same goes for "i have been watching the programme every week", is it because it is a temporary habit that the past continuous is used? Why can`t you say "I watch it every week", if the programme has been broadcast for years, like Eastenders for example. I have read the page on the continuous aspect, but i am still not sure.

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