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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



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:


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.
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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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,


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,


The LearnEnglish Team

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.



The LearnEnglish Team

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.