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:

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Submitted by Ram ous on Mon, 17/07/2017 - 15:47

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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.

Hello Ram ous,

It is grammatically correct to say either of these:

I practised every day, three times a day.

I was practising every day, three times a day.

 

The choice depends on how you see the action and what you wish to emphasise. The first suggests that the action was a normal part of your life for an extended time. The second suggests that the practising was temporary, or that you are describing a particular period which was different from other times - for example, you normally practised more or less than three times a day.

These differences are not factual so much as questions of emphasis and perspective.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

It depends on what comes after your sentences: I was practising every day, three times a day. until my teacher told me to practise less. The first part of your sentence is incomplete, it requires an action that interrupts the first action, stops it or changes it. With your second sentence, You have not completed it. You have to say Last year I went to the cinema every weekend. If you want to use the past progressive in this sentences then you must conclude, change or stop the first action, e.g. Last year, I was going to the cinema every weekend, when I realised that it was affecting my eyesight so I stopped going to often.

Submitted by Adi Shakti on Wed, 12/07/2017 - 13:55

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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". 


Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 12/07/2017 - 21:30

In reply to by Adi Shakti

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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

Submitted by Timothy555 on Thu, 29/06/2017 - 10:58

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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

Submitted by Kirk on Thu, 29/06/2017 - 17:20

In reply to by Timothy555

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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

Submitted by Omyhong on Sun, 18/06/2017 - 11:14

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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.

Submitted by Milan Kumar Padhy on Thu, 25/05/2017 - 18:13

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Dear Team, Kindly clarify on below. The children were doing their homework when I got home. When I get home the children are doing their homework. Are both the sentence correct. If yes how to know where to use present progressive and past progressive. Regards, Milan

Submitted by Peter M. on Fri, 26/05/2017 - 07:01

In reply to by Milan Kumar Padhy

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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

Submitted by Nizam Balinese on Fri, 31/03/2017 - 15:51

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Hi, Team. I found this conversation recently. A : How's your baby? Have you got a name yet? B : We can't decide. We were thinking about our baby's name, John. ================= Is it possible if I make combining sentence between them (The Present Tense with The Past Continous Tense) : " We can't decide when we were thinking about our baby's name, John." Or they have to be independent of each other? Would you like to explain, please? Thank you very much.

Submitted by Travis_walker on Wed, 05/04/2017 - 21:41

In reply to by Nizam Balinese

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It should be as follow 1.We could'nt decide while we were thinking about our baby's name 2.Whie we were thinking about our baby's name.We could'nt decide yet. To make it sounds nicely should be like this: A : How's your baby? Have you got a name yet? B: We've not decided yet.We're just think about. Travis Walker

Submitted by Nizam Balinese on Fri, 31/03/2017 - 14:16

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Hi, Team. I found this conversation recently, " We can't decide. We were thinking about our baby's name ". ================ Is it possible if I make combining sentence between them (The Present Tense with The Past Continous Tense) " We can't decide when we were thinking about our baby's name". Or they have to be independent of each other? Would you like to exlplain, please? Thank you very much.

Submitted by Mark_R on Thu, 02/03/2017 - 07:09

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Can one use the past progressive of a verb without "was" or "were"? Is there anything wrong with: Her sister ran by slapping her feet on the floor. or Her sister ran by slapping her feet on the floor and holding her sides. I include the second version because I wondered about mixing simple and progressive instead like this: Her sister ran by slapping her feet on the floor while she held her sides. I run into this quite a bit where I'm torn between an 'ed ending and a 'ing. even though I'm using simple past for the most part and never using "was" or "were" when I'm tempted to jam an 'ing in there.

Hello Mark_R,

The structure you are describing here is a participle clause. We have a page describing how these are formed and used. You can find it here and I think it will explain the structure clearly.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ahmednagar on Sat, 11/02/2017 - 07:23

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hello sir. A and B are talking on the phone. B says: i was just calling to see if i get a role in your movie. my question is why B uses past continuous tense? talking on the phone is still in the present moment. i think B should say " I'm just calling to see...." please explain.

Hello ahmednagar,

Both the past continuous and the present continuous are correct here. It's not really a question of grammar but of conventions of use, and both forms are quite common. I would say that the past continuous form is perhaps seen as slightly more polite or formal, but both are very commonly used.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by taj25 on Sun, 01/01/2017 - 14:04

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hi kirk The other day I was waiting for a bus when … why you use the end of the sentence wh form. how is possible. kindly clarify me

Submitted by memol95 on Sat, 28/05/2016 - 09:14

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hi would you please help me correct my student composition and explain them for corrected version. bear in mind my student level is intermediate. One day my two sons decided playing (1) football in our garden. At that time out next–door neighbour was watering those (2) flowers in his greenhouse. My younger son was kicking (3) the ball very hardly(4). The ball went on top of the greenhouse and the glass got broken. The neighbour has got (5) very angry with them and said, “You’re very naughty boys.

Submitted by Kirk on Sat, 28/05/2016 - 10:26

In reply to by memol95

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Hello memol95,

I'm afraid we don't offer the service of correcting users' texts. We're simply too small a team with too much work to be able to do it fairly. If you have a specific question about a specific part of a sentence, however, please don't hesitate to ask us about it.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by azeezabideen on Tue, 23/02/2016 - 14:00

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Sir explain to me if this sentence is wrong or correct? "As I was walking through the main building, I saw the director entering into his car and drove away."

Hello azeezabideen,

I would change the sentence slightly:

As I was walking through the main building, I saw the director get into his car and drive away.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter, From the sentence above: "As I walking through the main building, I saw the director get into his car and drive away." I am confused, why not "gets" and "drives" in the above sentence instead of "get" and "drive". Please help to clarify.

Hello Raman,

The structure here is: see (someone) do something

The form of the verb is the base form, not the present simple. It is possible to use a present participle too:

I saw him sing a song. [I saw the whole song]

I saw him singing a song. [I saw him sing part of a song, but I stopped watching before the end]

Note in the first example we use 'sing' (the base form) even though the sentence is describing a past event.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Cesar98 on Tue, 02/06/2015 - 14:54

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Hi, Past simple and past continuous both can use to describe something that happened again and again, so what's the exactly difference between them?

Submitted by Kirk on Wed, 03/06/2015 - 06:51

In reply to by Cesar98

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Hello Cesar98,

A continuous form indicates not only the time of an action but also the perspective of the speaker, i.e. how they see the action. A past simple form shows that the speaker sees the action as finished in some way, whereas a continuous form shows that the speaker sees it as unfinished or temporary in some way. I'd suggest you read our continuous aspect page for more on this, but please know this is a subtle distinction that usually takes some time and practice to master.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by vishak mv on Wed, 18/03/2015 - 11:17

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hi sir it has been a long time since i wrote something, so i would like to inform you about my absence that i was attending your online English coaching class[futurelearn] . This course could help me to improve a lots of usage that how to use in different situations in general purpose of communication and also improved some knowledge about British country side . even though i am not able to handle English in speaking because , i don't know how to improve oneself , i don't have who some one they know English as well and no one ever teach me as long as my mistakes so that i wanted to know that mistakes on writing , In that sense i suppose i can improve English so i expect that you can.

Submitted by mysa72 on Thu, 22/01/2015 - 21:52

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Hi Sir, I have been preparing to IELTS exam, because I want to got it next several times, So, till now I can't use grammar very well, I wrote this message while I was reading your explanation for past tense and also present tense, I have been feeling embarrassed when use grammar, and that is a big deal when I have been dealing with them especially in writing they would taken more time when think what I want to use. And as you know, the timing is very important there, in other side I tried to use grammar in my writing here, to show you if I wrote in correct way. Thus, and after that can you help me and tell me the easy way to understand to use grammar, I asked more than one, but unfortunately I have been problem. Thank you. Maisa Omar.

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 24/01/2015 - 11:19

In reply to by mysa72

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Hi Maisa,

I think our dedicated IELTS preparation site, TakeIELTS, will be very useful for you. You can find tips and suggestions, information about the exam, practice exercises and mock papers there.

As far as improving grammar goes, there are several tools you can use to check things. You can use the search facility which you can see on the right of each page. You can use the index of our grammar pages, where you will see links to various sections. We can also explain things for you in the comments sections (this answer and your question are both in the comment section for this page), as far as time allows.

A good tip for improving grammar is to keep a record of mistakes you make. When you do an exercise on a given area (for example, the present perfect), make a note of how you do, and what kind of problems you have. Then you'll have a guide as to what to study in order to improve. Also, read in English as much as possible. You'll pick up a lot of correct phrases and structures and develop a feel for when to use them and, though it won't feel like you're learning grammar, it will make a big difference. Try to spend a certain amount of time every day reading a couple of articles from English-language sources (newspapers, blogs etc) on the internet.

I hope those suggestions are helpful.

Best wishes,

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Cocotiera on Mon, 14/03/2016 - 20:08

In reply to by Peter M.

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Yes. It's true. So far, I have read six books. My English was improving obviously. I used to write ten pages every day for one year. I came in London six years ago and couldn't speak English at all. And, now I completed a level in management, but further to get the job related to my qualification, I am required to have excellent communication skills. I will manage cos I love English. It's the most beautiful language,

Submitted by I. R. on Mon, 12/01/2015 - 21:31

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hey there! ^_^ please help me out with this dilemma . which of the two sentences is correct? thanks!!

Hello I.R.,

Both sentences are correct, though of course the meanings are slightly different due to the use of 'leave' in 1 and 'go' in 2. You might want to look up these two words in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online search box on the right.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by uthirapathi on Sun, 27/07/2014 - 17:00

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Sir explain to me about past participles, also I want to know difference amongst be,been,being,to be,be to..

Hello uthirapathi,

You might find something to help you on the introductory page of the Verbs section of our Grammar Reference. If not, could you please ask a more specific question? We're happy to help, but we get dozens of questions every day and such a broad question requires a lengthy response that is not directly related to any page on our site.

Thanks.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by chfurlan on Fri, 18/07/2014 - 18:50

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shorter action and longer action**

Submitted by chfurlan on Fri, 18/07/2014 - 16:51

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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.

Submitted by Oscas Po on Fri, 18/07/2014 - 14:20

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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?

Submitted by Peter M. on Sat, 19/07/2014 - 07:27

In reply to by Oscas Po

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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

Submitted by Dr.frankenstien87 on Sat, 24/05/2014 - 20:31

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Great explanations, thank you so much

Submitted by ponchoman on Thu, 27/03/2014 - 04:11

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

Submitted by Hasssan on Wed, 26/02/2014 - 09:16

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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

Submitted by MayelaM on Mon, 02/09/2013 - 01:42

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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

Submitted by Abbas The One on Wed, 27/02/2013 - 14:50

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Hello everyone, I've got a problem with the solutions concerning the past continuous exercise on the following page : http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/english-grammar/verbs/past-tense/past-continuous

I can't figure out the solution 3 and 5 :

( Something that continued before and after another action ) according to this site corresponds to the sentence ( Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a strange noise.) Well, I think that hearing a voice is an action that is much much shorter than an action that someone would potentially be doing at the time of a specific incident. So ( Something that happened before and after a particular time ) would go for the sentence ( Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a strange noise.) because hearing a noise happens and is generally not something that continues and ( Something that continued before and after another action ) would go for the sentence ( What were you doing at the time of the incident ? ) because in general when we do something it continues.

Anyway, could you please help me get the thing ? Thank you 

 

Hello.. I think that  "as I was falling asleep" is the action which happened before and after another action, in this case "I heard a noise".

It's like "I heard a noise while I was falling asleep" or not?

Submitted by mahjid on Mon, 07/01/2013 - 09:21

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Hello Mr Jeremy Bee and thank you so much for your attention to my question. I hope a very happy year for you and your colleagues. 

Submitted by mahjid on Tue, 01/01/2013 - 08:35

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Hello;

Please look at this:

A: Where were you at five-thirty yesterday?

B: I ............................. at the movies.

a.was going to be          b.was

on my opinion "b" is true but my instructor says "a" is true. he says time expression "five thirty" (not five or six for example) suggests past continuous.

But I could agree with him if the question was in this form: "what were you doing at five-thirty yesterday?"

Am I wrong?

Thankyou