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:

Average: 4.2 (59 votes)

Submitted by Rikimaru on Sat, 11/07/2020 - 13:32

Hi, Can the past continuous tense be used to describe something that was in progress at a certain moment in the past and either finished in the past or continued until the present moment? Regards, Guan Lin
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Sun, 12/07/2020 - 15:21

In reply to by Rikimaru


Hello Guan Lin,

Yes, it could, though normally if we want to include the idea that an action continued until the present moment, we'd use a present perfect continuous form ('He's been writing a book'). But it could be that we speak of as being in progress in the past ('He was writing a book when he was on holiday') does continue until the present moment.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Kirk, but if we can use the past continuous to describe something which began in the past and continues to the present, then why call it the "past" continuous? I thought that the past continuous definitely refers to something which began and ended in the past?

Hello Rikimaru,

The continuous aspect doesn't focus on the beginning or end of an action, but of course a past continuous form refers to a past action, which by definition occurred before now.

What I was trying to say was that an action that we speak about in the past can also conceivably continue into the present, even if we don't speak about it that way. In other words, we can speak about an action as only existing in the past, but in fact later on we can discover that, or think of it, as something that is still happening. Verb tenses always show the perspective of the person who uses them, not necessarily the complete reality.

For example, I could say 'My friend Chris was living in Vietnam last summer', which refers only to last summer in whatever the context is. But it could be true that he is still living in Vietnam now, it's just that my first statement wasn't about the present -- it was about the past.

I'm sorry for the confusion. If what I said doesn't make sense, I wouldn't worry about it too much -- it's an unusual and not very important point.

All the best,

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by ASTeacher on Mon, 11/05/2020 - 03:26

Hello, I was wondering, is this sentence past continuous? "Many houses were destroyed in the bushfires. " Thank you for your help - I find it challenging to define which form of past tense sentences are.
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 11/05/2020 - 07:00

In reply to by ASTeacher


Hello ASTeacher

The verb is in the passive voice and the past simple tense. If you have any questions after reading the explanation on the page I linked to, please let us know.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by annanovich on Fri, 24/04/2020 - 11:29

Hello everyone! Is this correct to say " I was going skating every day last year"? What tense should we use with " every day"? Thank you.

Hello annanovich

It depends on the context or the way you are thinking about last year, but probably it would be best to use a past simple form ('I skated' or 'I went skating') here. If you tell us more about what comes before and after this sentence (in the book or conversation), we could tell you with more certainty.

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by justsomeran on Mon, 13/04/2020 - 04:21

Hello, My question is about exercise number 5. Can you please explain why we use the past progressive there and not the past simple? Thank you
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 13/04/2020 - 10:14

In reply to by justsomeran


Hello justsomeran

You could use a past simple form in those gaps and have a grammatically correct sentence. Please note, however, that the instructions make it clear that you should write the verb forms that were used in the previous exercise. In the previous exercise, the correct answer was the past continuous form.

Does that make sense?

All the best


The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sun, 01/03/2020 - 19:09

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.
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 02/03/2020 - 06:35

In reply to by Ahmed Imam


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


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Anubhav on Sun, 08/12/2019 - 04:36

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


The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Aladin710 on Thu, 21/11/2019 - 19:57

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:


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