The past continuous tense is formed with the past tense of the verb to be (was/were) + present participle (verbs ending in ...ing). Unlike the simple past tense which shows an action had been completed, the past continuous tense shows an action in progress. The two tenses however can be used together in a sentence to indicate an action happened while another was in progress.
The past continuous tense is used:
for an action that was taking place in the past when an interrupting action (expressed in the simple past tense) happened.
- We were camping when I got stung by a bee.
- When I visited him in the hospital, he was snoring loudly.
- While he was reading the newspaper, he fell asleep as usual.
- Black clouds were gathering when we arrived on the beach.
to show an action or activity is still going on.
- I was collecting old newspapers.
(I was in the midst of doing the collecting.)
- The police sirens were wailing.
- Pieces of debris were bobbing on the waves.
for an action that was happening and not yet finished at a particular time or throughout a period of time in the past. When the action started or ended is not important.
- Grandma was knitting a sock at 11 o'clock last night.
- The two brothers were hunting wild boars all evening.
- They were still chatting away to each other in the dead of night.
in indirect speech.
- Jill asked Jack why he was going to Timbuktu. .
- He said they were gathering to watch a total lunar eclipse.
Past continuous tense is used with while in a sentence to indicate two actions were going on at the same time in the past.
- The father was drinking while the mother was eating.
- While her cat was meowing, his dog was barking.
- While I was talking to him, his eyes were looking somewhere else.
Verbs not normally used in the continuous form.
The continuous tenses – both present and past – are used for action verbs but not for verbs that refer to states and feelings. These verbs are typically stative verbs and are used in the simple present and simple past tenses.
Some of the stative verbs that cannot be used here include believe, desire, doubt, feel, forget, hear, know, like, love, notice, remember, see, smell, taste, understand, wish and want.
- I forget the President’s name.
(Not: I am forgetting the President’s name.)
- He doubts everything I say about aliens from outer space.
(Not: He is doubting everything I say about aliens from outer space.)
- We understood the step-by-step instructions.
(Not: We were understanding the step-by-step instructions.)
- Do you hear that buzzing noise?
(Not: Are you hearing that buzzing noise?)
- Did you taste the sauce before you used it?
(Not: Were you tasting the sauce before you used it?)
The past continuous and simple past tenses can be used in a sentence often with the subordinate conjunction when.
to show that an action or event described in the past continuous tense started before the event expressed in the simple past tense happened.
- Two women were fighting in the street when two policewomen arrived.
(The fighting started before the policewomen arrived.)
- We were having a catnap under a tree when the police siren woke us up.
- I was munching on an apple when I noticed a worm in the apple.
- They were having a barbecue when the rain started falling.
He was looking up the sky when he stepped in a puddle.
- Her puppy licked her ear when she was lying down..
Difference in time order between past continuous tense and simple past tense.
- (1) When we reached there, it rained.
- (2) When we reached there, it was raining.
In (1): reached there, then raining started
In (2): reached there, it was already raining.
The passive form of the past continuous tense.
The passive form of the past continuous tense consists of was or were + being + the past participle of the verb. It is used to express an action done to the subject. The action must be in the past and unfinished at the time concerned.
- The house was being renovated, so we stayed in a nearby warehouse.
- We waited for an hour while dinner was being prepared.
Past continuous tense in questions.
The past continuous tense in questions is used with the past form of an auxiliary verb was or were. It comes before the subject which is followed by the present participle of the main verb: was/were + subject + verb-ing.
- What were they doing sitting cross-legged on the floor?
- Was the widowed mother feeling lonely when her six children left home?
Difference between past continuous tense and simple past tense.
- He was writing a letter yesterday.
(His letter was not finished yesterday.)
- He wrote a letter yesterday.
(He completed the letter.)
- While her mother was reading a book, Jill was playing the piano.
(Two actions were in progress simultaneously.)
- While I read a book, my sister played the piano.
(Two completed events happened simultaneously.)
- My father was having a shave at 7 o'clock.
(The shave started before 7 o'clock and still in progress at 7 o'clock.)
- My father had a shave at 7 o'clock.
(The shaving started at 7 o'clock until completion.)
Past continuous tense and simple past tense having similar meaning.
The first sentence with past continuous tense has the same meaning as the second sentence with simple past tense.
- They were watching television all night.
(Watching television went on throughout the night.)
- They watched television all night.
(Watching television went on from the beginning to the end of the night.)
- When she came in, I was dreaming.
(She came in at the time of my dreaming.)
- She came in while I was dreaming.
(She came in during my dreaming.)