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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:

Comments

Thanks for the tip. It's really useful and helpful.

She picked up a pen that was lying nearby

How is it different from "that lay nearby"?

Thanks teachers.

Hello AsahiYo20,

You could make the argument that was lying suggests the pen is not normally in that place, while lay suggests the opposite. However, I think in most contexts the two forms can be used interchangeably and it's really more a question of style and speaker preference.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hi, I was wondering why you didn't put the explanation of past continuous using negative connotations and questions? it was really helpful with the other tenses.
thank you.

Hello karina120,

Thank you for the comment. We'll make a note of this for when we next update the page. In the meantime, if you have any questions about how to form the negative or question then we'll be happy to explain, of course.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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

Kirk

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,
Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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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