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 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 DaniWeebKage 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

Submitted by Kirk 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 DaniWeebKage 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.

Hello DaniWeebKage,

The second one is correct as we consider opening a cupboard door to be an instantaneous action. Nothing falls out when the door is shut; things fall out once it is open, not during the process of opening.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sun, 04/10/2020 - 21:41

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Hello. Could you please help me? Is the following sentence correct? - While I was reading the newspaper, my mother cooked. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Yes, that's fine. Depending on the situation, 'my mother was cooking' could also be correct.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello again. What is the difference between the two situations. 1- While I was reading the newspaper, my mother cooked. 2- While I was reading the newspaper, my mother was cooking. Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

2 focuses on the fact that both actions were happening at the same time. 1 could suggest that you were already reading when your mother started cooking and that she finished before you did.

You can read a little more about the use of these two tenses together on our Past continuous and past simple page.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Samin on Thu, 01/10/2020 - 09:23

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I want to know about this sentences May he live longer! Or Thank you. Happy birthday! What type of sentence are these: optative, Imperative or exclamatory Is there any catagory in sentence, for wishing someone.

Hello Samin,

These sentences represent an opative mood in terms of meaning, but English does not represent this with any particular form. Rather, certain constuctions carry an opative meaning, such as the examples you give.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by OlaIELTS on Thu, 10/09/2020 - 23:15

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

Submitted by AsahiYo20 on Sun, 23/08/2020 - 03:52

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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

Submitted by karina120 on Wed, 22/07/2020 - 23:19

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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

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

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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

Submitted by Kirk on Sun, 12/07/2020 - 15:21

In reply to by Rikimaru

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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

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

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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.

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 11/05/2020 - 07:00

In reply to by ASTeacher

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

Submitted by Kirk on Mon, 13/04/2020 - 10:14

In reply to by justsomeran

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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.

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

In reply to by Ahmed Imam

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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:

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/english-grammar-reference/questions-and-negatives

 

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.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by anouk on Fri, 24/11/2017 - 19:18

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Thank you very much for your explanations. One thing is certain, English is not easy at all!

Submitted by anouk on Thu, 23/11/2017 - 17:16

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thank you. I have another question: is there any difference in meaning between "they were meeting secretely after school" and "they met secretely after school" for example yesterday, every week, etc. Is it possible to use either past simple or past continuous in this example, without difference in meaning?

Hello anouk,

The context would determine which form you should use here. For example, if you're just speaking about a routine habit all last year, the past simple would probably be the best. But imagine, for example, that you thought your daughter had been going to her friend's and her boyfriend to his job after school, but just found out that they'd been meeting. In this case, by saying 'They were meeting secretly' as you were explaining it to your partner, their meetings weren't just a routine habit for you -- they were something you don't approve of that happened again and again in that particular time period. Using the past continuous helps communicate this.

That, of course, is just one situation -- there are an infinite number of other ones that could call for the use of the past continuous or the past simple.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello... I´ve seen your comment. It´s too late, and you have probably already find the solution for your uestion. But just in case, here is my opinion: When saying "they were meeting secretly after school", you are expressing that this was something they did once and again... a repeated action, but also a temporary action or habit in the past. Instead, in "They met secretly after school", the reflected idea is that it happened only once, or that it was a steady habit in the past, (not temporary). Both uses are correct, but they express different ideas. Hope it was useful!

Submitted by anouk on Wed, 22/11/2017 - 16:58

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could it be that "I was practising" every day is used because you find it annoying,because you didn`t want to practise and "I practised every day" is neutral? I am asking, because present simple is used for habits, and doing something every day is a habit. That is what I don`t understand. Same goes for "i have been watching the programme every week", is it because it is a temporary habit that the past continuous is used? Why can`t you say "I watch it every week", if the programme has been broadcast for years, like Eastenders for example. I have read the page on the continuous aspect, but i am still not sure.

Hello anouk,

The continuous aspect can be used to communicate different meanings, and yes, one of them is of something temporary, and sometimes this temporary thing can be something we don't or didn't enjoy. It's not that 'I practised every day' can't communicate annoyance -- you could communicate with a certain tone of voice, for example -- but by itself it is neutral, whereas the continuous form shows that there's an additional layer of meaning.

Similarly, 'I've been watching it every week' could express different meanings, one of which is that it's something temporary. For example, perhaps you used to watch it once or twice a month, but now that you plan to go to university in London, you're watching it more often to get used to the accent.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by anouk on Tue, 21/11/2017 - 16:32

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i have a question regarding something happening again and again: what is the difference between "I was practising every day, three times a day"and "I practised every day", since the past simple is used for regular habits. The same goes for "I have been watching the programme every week", is it possible to say "I watch the programme every week" without difference in meaning.

Hello anouk,

The continuous aspect changes the way that we see a particular action or group of actions. The meaning it adds is dependent on the situation. It can show that an action is repeated or that it is (was/will be) in progress around a certain time, for example. For more detailed descriptions of this and examples please take a look at this page. Try to apply the information there to your examples and explain them yourself, and we'll be happy to comment on your explanations if you put them in the comments.

 

Best wishes,

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by davidinh on Tue, 14/11/2017 - 10:10

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Hi, While I was leaning English grammar, I met a sentence as below: - I know Doug was working late at the office because I saw him when I was leaving. I don't understand why past continuous tense is used for the 'work' verb ('was working'). In my opinion, it should be past simple tense ('worked'). Please help me explain it in detail. Thank you! Best, David

Submitted by Kirk on Tue, 14/11/2017 - 18:01

In reply to by davidinh

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Hello David,

You could say 'worked' and it would also be correct. It depends on what you mean to say, but in general the past simple would simply indicate that you saw Doug at the office after hours whereas the past continuous could be used to emphasise that you saw the working in progress. This could be appropriate, for example, when a friend of yours says that she saw Doug at a restaurant at the same time you saw him at the office.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team