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Past continuous

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



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


Past continuous and past simple


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:


Hello Aladin710,

This page deals with the meaning of the past continuous. You can find information about forming negatives of all verb forms on this page:


As it says on that page, we make negatives by adding 'not' after the first part of the verb:

He was reading > He was not reading.

They were walking > They were not walking.



The LearnEnglish Team


Hi gerol2000

In the proper context, your sentence makes sense. Out of context, though, it makes no sense, as you can see from Peter's reply.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi gerol2000

Yes, you could use it in the appropriate context with all of those markers except perhaps 'all my life'. If you were a ghost speaking of the time when you were alive ('all my life'), then that would work, but if you are still alive, a present perfect continuous form would probably be better (e.g. 'I have been working on my book for two hours a day all my life since I was 18.'). Perhaps I'm not thinking of some other context where the past continuous would work, but in general I think it wouldn't work.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi gerol2000

The verb 'was waiting' is not wrong, but 'had been waiting' (the past perfect continuous) would be better. Also, the phrasal verb 'turn over' is not correct here. I'd suggest 'flip over' instead. Apart from these two small things, well done!

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi gerol2000

Yes, that is correct.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

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,
The LearnEnglish Team