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:

Average
Average: 4 (96 votes)

Submitted by HLH on Thu, 25/01/2024 - 17:58

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Hello
1) can I use Past continuous before now
I was studding one hour ago
2) can I use Past continuous before now and between verbs I mean about the length of the action ?

Hello HLH,

Your first example is fine. Past tenses (simple or continuous) describe actions in a finished past time frame, and 'one hour ago' is certainly this. Your sentence means that you were in the middle of studying one hour before now.

 

I don't understand your second question. Could you provide an example to illustrate what you mean, please?

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Peter
can I use Past continuous Same meaning present perfect continuous and
What is the difference between these two examples and both from the past before now ?
Example
I have been playing squash and need a shower
I was playing squash and need a shower

Hi HLH,

Sentence 1 (present perfect continuous) shows that the action "playing squash" happened recently, and it's connected to the other present action "need a shower".

Sentence 2 is not as clear as sentence 1 because "was playing" is a past (not present perfect) action, so it seems more distance from and less connected to the other present action "need a shower". You could still say this if you add a past time phrase (e.g. I was playing squash earlier and now I need a shower), but otherwise sentence 1 seems better.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Hi Jonathan
(shows that the action "playing squash" happened recently)
1- Do you mean that the action stopped minutes or hours ago?
2-What is the length of time between the verb between the present perfect continuous and the past continuous ?
example
- I was studding one hour ago (mean now I stopped studding)
-I have been studding for one hour now I will sleep (mean now I stopped studding )

# And also with the present perfect and past simple

-I've waited him for an hour and now I will go home
- I waited him for an hour and now I will go home

3- Is this correct ?
- I was studding for one hour one hour ago
OR
-- I was studding one hour ago and I was studding for one

Hi HLH,

1. Yes, right. Because the person says "I need a shower", I am assuming that he/she has already stopped playing.

2. Sorry, I don't really understand the question. The length of time is shown by "for" or "since", e.g. I was studying for one hour or I have been studying for one hour (length of time = one hour).

A sentence like I was studying one hour ago shows WHEN you studied, but it doesn't tell us the length of time (i.e. HOW LONG).

3. I was studying for one hour one hour ago - yes, this is grammatically possible (note the spelling studying). But, it is unusual because the past continuous ("was studying") shows that the action was in the middle of happening, at the given time "one hour ago". It emphasises the ongoing-ness of the action (i.e., being in the middle of it, at that time). So, it conflicts with "for one hour", which emphasises the total length of time (one hour), which involves the activity being finished (rather than being in the middle of it).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Khangvo2812 on Wed, 10/01/2024 - 14:48

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Could I say I have studied English there? I was studying English there for three months? or should I use past perfect continuous in this case?

Hi Khangvo2812,

All of these sentences are correctly formed, but the choice of verb tense depends on how this action is related to other actions in the rest of the sentence, text or conversation. For example:

  • I have studied English there (present perfect) - this is the main topic of the conversation, or happened recently (see our Present perfect page for more uses and meanings)
  • I was studying English there for three months (past continuous) - you want to emphasise how long it was (see the page above for more)
  • I had been studying English there for three months (past perfect continuous) - this is the background to some other past action (see our Perfect aspect and Continuous aspect pages)

So, without knowing the context, we cannot know which tense is the best one to use.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Aida Hanabi on Fri, 22/12/2023 - 14:22

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Hi, I need help.

Sir, footprints," Kyle called when he found a trace on the ground. Jean approached and knelt down.

"It is like a wolf's footprints but bigger …. Dread wolf," Jean concluded, and he traced where it went.

Should I change "When he found" with "When finding"?

Thank you

Hi Aida Hanabi,

When he found is better. The act of finding is instantaneous so the calling is after it, not during it.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Paouri_A on Thu, 21/12/2023 - 20:18

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Could you please help me with this excercise: fill the gaps with correct tense : PAST SIMPLE, PAST CONTINUOUS, PAST PERFECT. 1. play a. I ... a game when the computer broke down. b. By 1999, Ralph ... thirty matches with the team. c. My mother ... in a shool theatre as a girl. 2. write a. By noon the secretary ... fifteen replies. b. What ... (Tina) when you entered her room? c. When he lived in Spain, Hemingway ... quite a few good stories. 3. use a. Before the dishwasher broke down, I ... only three times. b. In the 19th century, teachers seldom ... chalk to write on the blackboard. c. He was angry when he learnt that I ... his mobile phone on a few occasions

Hello Paouri_A,

I'm afraid we don't provide this kind of help on the site. We're happy to explain structures and rules, give examples and so on, but we don't just provide answers to tests or tasks from elsewhere. If we did, we would end up doing our users' homework for them.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Khangvo2812 on Sun, 05/11/2023 - 16:21

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Hello,
Could you check this sentence for me please?
I couldn't go out this morning because it was raining the whole morning.

Hello Khangvo2812,

I don't see anything wrong with that sentence. Of course, whether or it is appropriate will depend on the context in which it is used.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

If I understand correctly, it had been raining the whole morning, so I couldn’t go out has a different meaning to my previous sentence?

Hello again Khangvo2812,

Both sentences tell us that you did not go out because of the rain. In most situations that would be the message you would want to convey and so you could use either sentence.

The only difference is that the past progressive form (was raining) suggests that it was still raining when you made the decision and continued to rain, whereas the past perfect progressive (had been raining) tells us only about the situation up to the decision. The past perfect progressive, for example, could mean that the rain had stopped when you made the decision (but everything was still wet). The past perfect progressive does not tell us if the rain continued; it deals only with the time up to the decision. As I said, most of the time this distinction would be irrelevant and you could use either form.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by anhtuan01995 on Wed, 05/07/2023 - 10:10

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Hello Team,

I got confused between the past simple and past continuous in this situation. What do you say about it?
Here is the sentence: We were late for school because it rained heavily.
Of course, it happened and finished and we were late. But can we use past continuous instead? (We were late for school because it was raining heavily). If yes, how could we make it clearer for others to understand, sir?

Thanks a lot for your help.

Hi anhtuan01995,

Yes, you can use the past continuous. The meaning of the two sentences is similar, but the past continuous emphasises "raining" as having a duration, i.e. going on for some time. The past simple, in comparison, presents "rained" simply as something that happened and finished.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by buggyman94 on Sun, 14/05/2023 - 11:18

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"he doesn't prepared for what's coming." was this sentence wrote correctly?

Hello buggyman94,

No, I'm afraid not. If I understand what you want to say, the correct version is 'He wasn't prepared for what was coming' or 'He hasn't prepared for what's coming' or 'He's not prepared for what's coming'.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

No, it wasn't. Because if you want to talk about the past in a negative form, you use didn't + Verb in base form, so, the sentence would be "He didn't prepare for what's coming"

Submitted by mr.rm.6656 on Thu, 23/02/2023 - 09:20

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Hi everyone. Is the following sentence grammatically correct? Thank you
“ He was reading a book yesterday at night.”

Hi mr.rm.6656,

Yes, it is! But for "yesterday at night" it would be more usual to say "last night".

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Hi AnnabelD,

I don't think there's a single answer to this! It may be introduced at various grades, ages or stages, depending on the country, curriculum and textbooks used.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Submitted by _Chris_ on Sun, 19/02/2023 - 23:12

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Hi, I have a quick question. Is it correct to say "As the snow was falling, I was staying inside my house and playing the piano."? There are three actions mentioned in this sentence and every one of them is a "long-term" action. But still, I'm not quite sure if I got it right.

Hi _Chris_,

The sentence is not incorrect - it's grammatically fine - but I'm not sure in which context you would use it.

Remember, continuous forms are not about the length of the action but rather the fact that it is in progress in some way relative to another event. You can describe very long-term actions with simple forms: The Roman Empire lasted for almost 1500 years by most counts. However, when one event occurs within the context of another event the continuous is used: The Roman were ruling Britain when Boudica rebelled.

 

As the sentence is, without any wider context, there is no reason to use continuous forms here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 27/12/2022 - 19:54

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Hello Team. Could you please help me choose the correct one? Why?
- One day, the boys found a man in the forest. He (had died - was dying).
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both forms are possible. It depends on whether or not the man was still alive when he was found.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by waza1000 on Mon, 30/05/2022 - 14:33

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hi thanks for your answering
i have one question
can we say and is that correct? "i was going to club for 5 month"
or we say...."i have gone to club for 5 month"
which one is correct?and when do we use from these?
Thanks

Hello waza1000,

This depends on the context but I think these are the most likely options:

If you still go to the club: I have been going to the club for 5 months.

If you no longer go to the club: I went to the club for 5 months / I was going to the club for 5 months. [the meaning is the same; was going emphasises that you knew it was a temporary situation]

If you still go to the club: I have been going to the club for 5 months.

 

I have gone to the club for 5 months is not correct.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Qirat2004 on Sat, 05/03/2022 - 22:30

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is this correct

when i lived in England, i had taken a course on english grammar
when i had been living in England, i took a course on english grammar

Hello Qirat2004,

It really depends on the situation, but I'm afraid that these are probably not correct. If you are now living somewhere else, lived in England for a time in the past, and took a course on English grammar before you lived in England, you could say, for example: 'Before living in England, I had taken a course on English grammar'.

Does that express what you mean?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Is it correct to say that while i was living in England i was taking a course: when i lived in England i was taking a course. P.S. i am not living there any more

Hi yyyyyyyy7,

Yes, both of those sentences are correct and they have the meaning that you said.

Using the past continuous (was taking a course) means that the course lasted the whole of the length of your stay in England (i.e., you started living in England when the course started, and you left England when the course ended).

In comparison, if you say While I was living in England, I took a course ("took" = past simple), the course could last the whole of your stay in England, or it could be just one part of your stay.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

The first sentence is accurate if.... you no longer live in English but when you did, you had taken a course.

The second sentence doesn't indicate the right timing. The course should be further in the past than living in English....I had been taking a course on English grammar when I was living in England.

Submitted by Nora Kirts on Tue, 14/12/2021 - 19:55

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Hello!
Could you,please, explain this sentence: 'I was going to meet my friend while it was raining' Can we say that these are two actions in the Past Continous tense, although 'was going to' is future time expressed in the Past?

Hi Nora Kirts,

Yes, I would probably understand the sentence as two past continuous actions. In this sense, "I was going" shows an action in progress (i.e., I was walking, driving or moving in some other way), not future time in the past.

The future time meaning is different. That shows the person's plan or intention, rather than an action in progress. So, it might make sense for the person to say that they were planning to meet the friend while it was raining, but it's a bit unusual (why would they only plan to meet as long as it was raining?).

I hope that helps.

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by breezyabdo on Tue, 30/03/2021 - 15:08

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Hi guys i have a quick question here in this sentence : yesterday, i _____ (watch) television when my father ______(read) a book. Here we have to actions in the past and the rule of past continous is that : Past perfect before when and simple past after : yesterday, i was watching television when my father read a book. But i fount the correct answer : yesterday, i was watching television when my father was reading a book.

Hi breezyabdo,

Both versions are gramatically possible, but only one logically fits the context.

 

We can use past simple with a past continous form to show an event which happens in the middle of another event:

I answered the phone while I was eating my dinner.

> I am in the middle of eating when I answer the phone.

 

We can use two past continuous forms when two events occur at the same time and continue:

The phone was ringing while I was eating my dinner.

> Both events are ongoing; I let the phone ring and keep on eating.

 

Now, in your context if you use a past simple (my father read a book) it would suggest that in the time you were watching TV he started and finished a book. It's possible that he's a super-fast reader, or that it is a very short book, but it's more likely that these were two ongoing events rather than one happening entirely during another.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MPhayTp on Sat, 06/03/2021 - 13:05

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Dear Team, In these 1. When I got to work, I realized I wasn't wearing my watch. 2. When I got to work, I realized I hadn't wore my watch. 1)Could you plz tell me these sentences have the same meaning? 2) When to use each (P.simple or P.perfect). I mean both tenses have happened-before-meaning. How to decide to use? Thank You!!!

Hello DaniWeebKage,

You can find our pages on the use of the past perfect here:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/perfect-aspect

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/past-perfect

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/talking-about-the-past

 

As you'll see from the information on those pages, we use perfect forms, whether present, past or future, when the earlier event has an influence on the later event. It's not only a question of sequence, but of relevance. If the earlier event affects the later situation in some important way, then we link them using a perfect form.

For example:

I ate before I went to the party.

[two events: eating and going to the party; no connetion is emphasised]

I had eaten before I went to the party.

[the earlier event is connected in some way - presumably, the speaker is telling us that he or she was not hungry when they went to the party]

 

You can see from this that the context and intent of the speaker is key.

I won't comment directly on your examples as they contain a few errors and the very 'wear' (rather than 'put on' or 'take') is problematic and would need a very long explanation of a very unlikely context.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by a1981z on Tue, 08/12/2020 - 19:59

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Please what the correct answer for the following: Just as he was going home, his friend was talking / talked to him about their future.

Hello a1981z,

If this is from a test or exercise, 'was talking' is probably the intended answer. This means that they were talking at the same time they were going home -- both actions are happening together.

If the verb were 'talked', it would be odd (though not impossible I think) because the talking happens in the time he was going home, though not during the whole action of going home.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by shahed dalloul on Sat, 21/11/2020 - 14:59

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Hello I want to know the right answer for these sentences 1 while the plumber was repairing the washing machine, I .......(watched )or(was watching ) the news . 2 I am not sure, but they ................. (may well ) or ( will probably accept his project
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Submitted by Kirk Moore on Mon, 23/11/2020 - 07:47

In reply to by shahed dalloul

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Hello shahed dalloul,

In 1, 'was watching' is the correct answer. The actions are simultaneous and when each finishes is not indicated.

In 2, 'will probably' is less certain than 'may well', so I'd say 'will probably' is a better answer since it begins with 'I'm not sure'.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Samin on Mon, 02/11/2020 - 13:28

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Hi can you please clear this confusion Anika will win the prize If I change it into past tense what will be the correct one- Anika won the prize Anika would win the prize

Hi Samin, 

The original sentence is a prediction about the future. If you want to maintain that meaning but move the time into the past, then would is the best option:

(I think that ) Anike will win the prize.

(I thought that) Anika would win the prize. 

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by MPhayTp on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 11:00

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Dear Team, Could you tell me which one of mine is correct? When I was opening the cupboard door, a pile of books fell out. (Or) When I opened the cupboard door, a pile of books fell out. And Why? Thanks a lot.