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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

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

Hello.
Can we use the past continuous to talk about "repeated action in the past" as in the following sentence:
- When I was in Sharm El-Sheikh, I was sunbathing a lot.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam

Yes, you can, though the past simple is also possible here. Which form is better depends on how you see the action or the reason you are mentioning it.

For example, if you were explaining the things you used to do in your free time when you lived in Sharm El-Sheikh (and you now live somewhere else), it would make more sense to say 'sunbathed', since that's a period of time that is now over.

On the other hand, if you a friend observed that you are now very pale, whereas before you used to be quite tan, the correct choice would be the past continuous form because in this case you are explaining the background to another statement. 

I hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello everyone, my question is related to the usage of "have had", would it be be correct to say-

I have'nt had a conversation with her in the last 2 years.

Does this mean "I havent made a conversation to her in the last 2 years ."

Hello Anubhav

Yes, that sentence is grammatically correct, though please note the correct spelling is 'haven't' instead of 'have'nt'.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

What about he negative form for past continuous

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:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/questions-and-negatives

 

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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Holaaaa

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

Kirk

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

Kirk

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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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