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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 The LearnEnglish Team,

From the examples above I realized that we can use while/when to subordinate sentences but I'm not sure we can use all with the same meaning. So, I studied in other sites and found that we use WHEN to introduce the sentence that describes the shorter sentence and WHILE to introduce the sentence that describes the longer one or two sentences that describes simultaneous actions. Is that correct? I'd really apreciatte further explanations about this subject.

Thanks!

Carlos.

hi!
my apology today i asked many questions please don't get tired of me. here another question i would like to ask. are these sentenses below they got the same meaning?
1. The children were doing their homework when I got home.
2. I got home. The children did their homework.
3. The children did their homework when I got home.
from what i understood sentense 2 & 3 mean the same thing but not sentense 1. because from sentense 1 the children were still doing their homework the moment i got home but in 2 & 3 children already done their homework the moment i got home. am i right?

Hi Oscas Po,

Not quite. What you say about sentence 1 is correct: the children started doing their homework before you arrived home and were still doing it when you got there.

Sentences 2 and 3 show a sequence rather than actions occuring at the same time. The implied sequence is that first you arrive home and then the children do their homework. However, there is a difference.

Sentence 2 does not tell us when the children started to do their homework. It could have been immediately after you arrive, or it could have been later. In addition, the sequence here is not explicitly confirmed; it is only our guess from the order of the actions in the sentence. In certain contexts, it is possible that the order was different. For example, if someone asks 'How was you day yesterday?' Then you might answer 'Fine. I got home. The children did their homework. I went for a walk with the dog. I listened to some music...' Here it is not clear what the order of the events was as you are simply listing them as you recall them. We might assume that there is a certain sequence, but it is not explictly stated in the sentence.

Sentence 3 gives us a very clear sequence: it tells us that the the children started their homework when you arrived, as if they were waiting for you to arrive before starting, or perhaps you told them to do their homework upon arrival.

I hope that clarifies it for you.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

it is, thank you very much

Great explanations, thank you so much

This explanation of the use of past continuous is really wonderful. I'll give it a try tomorrow in the classroom.

Hello everyone.

I want to thank everyone that have a hand for this site success. After a few days of use of the site i fund it very useful and that is the reason for my comment.
My english is poor until the now, but i wish to improve it and to be a good English speaker/writing.

Best regards
Hassan

Hello Hasssan,

Thanks for letting us know that you find LearnEnglish useful - that's what we're here for!

Best wishes,

Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi,  What's the different in saying :  Last week as I was driving to work …   vs.  Last week when I was driving to work...  In the eventuality of both sentences are grammatically correct, which one is more formal?
Is there any place on the site where I can see the proper usage of words as "as" ?  Is it an adverb? or a conjunction? 
Thanks!
 

Hi MayelaM,
'As' here is a conjunction used to link words, phrases or clauses.  It can be used in several ways, but in your example it is used to show an event happened at the same time as another event.  Both of the sentences are correct and neither is particularly formal, though I would say the version with 'as' sounds slightly more formal than the version with 'when'.
 
You can find more information on sentence structure, including conjunctions, here.
You can find more information on 'as' here.
 
I hope that helps to clarify it for you.
Best wishes,
 
Peter
The LearnEnglish Team

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