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 (143 votes)

Submitted by FairmanV on Wed, 08/05/2024 - 17:11

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Hi,

I  think I've spotted a mistake in the first exercise for past continuous. It's in the last question. 

Jules ______in and out of love when he was a young man. 

was always falling

was falling always

always was falling

The first option should be the correct answer as the frequency adverb goes before the main verb. According to the feedback, both option 1 and option 3 are correct. Is this just an error or am I missing something?

Thanks in advance,

V

 

 

 

Hi FairmanV,

You're absolutely right - well spotted!

I'm not sure how this happened but we will correct it as soon as possible.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by itzSaif123457 on Sun, 05/05/2024 - 09:39

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Hello team, i have a simple question, can past simple and continuous have the same meaning? For example: “yesterday she was wearing trousers” and “yesterday she wore trousers”. Is there any difference in meaning between these sentences?.

Hello itzSaif123457,

In general, the past simple describes a completed action while the past continuous describes an interrupted action in some way - that is, one which happens around another action or time. Wear is an unusual verb in that it is usually in the continuous unless you are talking about a particular event or situation. For example, if I were describing my dress yesterday I would normally say 'I was wearing a dark suit'. However, if I want to describe my dress for a particular event then I would probably say 'I wore my black tie to the funeral'. Your example does not specify any particular context so I think the continuous form is more likely but the simple is also possible.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by hangng89 on Tue, 12/03/2024 - 03:14

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I've read somewhere online that "The past continuous tense shows an action that started in the past and continued over a period of time in the past. It is NO LONGER GOING ON in the present." But I don't think so. I think when someones say "This time last year I was living in Hong Kong.", he might be not living there in the present or he might still be living there. 

Thank you for your help.

Hello hangng89,

'This time last year I was living in Hong Kong' certainly implies that the person is no longer living there. Of course, you could change this by adding something like 'already': 'This time last year I was already living in Hong Kong.'

It's not so much that the past continuous cannot be used for something which is still true. It's rather that when you use the past continuous you are only focused on what happened in the past time frame. For example, imagine a man (A) being interviewed by the police (B):

A: You live in London, correct?

B: Yes, that's right.

A: And were you living in London when the robbery happened last year?

B: Yes, I was. I moved here three years ago.

The man still lives in London but the police officer is asking about a past time period, so can use a past tense.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

 

Submitted by hangng89 on Tue, 12/03/2024 - 03:01

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Can I write "What were you doing from 6 to 10 last night?" 

I've just run into a grammar exercise that requires completing a sentence from the given clues "What/ you/ do/ from 6 to 10 last night?" My friend says it has to be "What did you do ...?" because of "from ... to ...". But I think the past continuous still makes sense if I was still in the middle of doing that thing from ... to .... 
Thank you for your help.

Hello hangng89,

In this sentence the continuous form fits better. The question is about the person's activity during a particular period of time and the continuous form is normal for this kind of meaning.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by hangng89 on Mon, 11/03/2024 - 02:14

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Can I write "We were donating money to help the earthquake victims last month."?

My grammar workbook says there is one mistake in the above sentence, that is "were donating" --> "donated". But I think the past continuous is fine, because I read an example in another book "In 2010, I was studying in the UK".  So I think it's not because of the time expressions "in 2010" and "last month" that I have to use the past simple, but the meaning of the speaker. I'm not sure if I'm right (?)

Thank you for your help.

Hi hangng89,

I mostly agree with your book. The past continuous shows that the action happened over a period of time. Studying normally does happen over a period of time such as weeks or months, so I was studying makes sense. 

On the other hand, donating money just happens in one moment. If you sent money or gave money in the past, those actions just took a moment and then the actions end, so past simple should be used. They did not have a significant duration.

If, however, you repeatedly gave money during that period of time, then you could use past continuous because the donations took place over a period of time.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

LearnEnglish team

Thank you very much! Your answer is so clear and easy to understand.

Can I also ask in my grammar book, it said: "We do not use the past continuous for regular or repeated actions in the past. NOT Last year, I was going to the cinema every weekend." But I read in this post above that the past continuous can be used: "was practising every day, three times a day." 

I'm confused. Thank you again for your help.

Hello hangng89,

The sentence 'I was practising every day, three times a day' describes something that the speaker did for a period of time, not as a permanent/fixed habit. The implication is that normally the speaker did not practise in this way but for a certain period - maybe before a concert or an exam - they changed their approach. In this sense it is not a regular action but something exceptional done over a limited period of time.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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?