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 Milan Kumar Padhy,

The first sentence (were doing... got) describes one particular situation in the past.

The second sentence (are doing... get) describes something which is generally true.

In particular contexts, such as narratives, the meaning might change but these are the most likely meanings of these forms.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi teacher, I was told that I should delete "was" in the following sentence. Can you please explain why?

I saw a man was trying to cross a road.

Thank you so much.

Hi,

While I understand that the past continuous is often used with the simple past to explain a longer action in the past interrupted by a shorter action, or used with past time expressions such as "last night, yesterday etc". However, my question is would it be possible to use the past continuous as it is without any simple past or past time expressions. In other words, can the past continuous be used to simply emphasize that an action was ongoing for some time in the past, such as "I was resting." or "I was eating."? Also, may I know if this is what you mean under the section "to show that something continued for some time"?

Thanks!
- Tim

Hello Tim,

Yes, you can certainly use the past continuous form in a short sentence with no other time markers -- your example of 'I was resting' is a good one. Choosing which verb form to use often depends in part on how we view the action. In the case of 'I was resting', this could, for example, be a response to 'What were you doing yesterday at 5:00? I called you and no one answered.' In such a context, you're talking about an action that was ongoing at the time and this is why 'I was resting' is the best choice. There are of course many other possible scenarios, but I hope this gives you an idea of what I mean.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk,

But in your example of "what were you ding at 5pm", there is still a point of time as a reference, i.e. 5pm. But I was wondering if the past continuous can be used to simply express that an action or situation lasted for some time in the past, and whose duration time is unknown or unimportant - such as The Dog was barking or My head was aching or I was working yesterday at night?

Also, may i know if this (the above) is what you meant by "to show that something continued for some time" as one of the uses of the past continuous?

Regards,
Tim

Hello Tim,

Whenever we speak or write, there is a context. Sometimes that context is only in our heads, but there is always some kind of context. But yes, you could use the past continuous without a very specific time reference. If you have a specific example in mind, then please let us know.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,

I came across the following sentences:

"We watched the man fall as if in slow motion. He was flying through the air". 


and was wondering whether I can say:

"We were watching the man fall as if in slow motion. He flew through the air". 


Hello Adi Shakti,

You could say 'were watching' instead of 'watched' if that was appropriate for what you wanted to say. Using 'flew' after 'were watching', though, is a bit incongruous because the idea of the man falling in slow motion suggests an action in progress, which would be indicated with a past continuous form.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you so much, Kirk for the clarification.

Good evening.
I'm a little bit confused about this part
*(we use past continuous) for something that was happening again and again:
1.I was practising every day, three times a day.
what about this one is this correct ?
2.Last year,I was going to the cinema every weekend.

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