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 interrupted 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.
- While I was talking to him, his eyes looked somewhere else.
to show that it is in the middle of an action.
- I was collecting old newspapers.
(I was in the middle of doing the collecting,)
- The police sirens were wailing.
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.
- They were hunting wild boars all evening.
in Direct or Indirect Speech.
- “How are you going to Timbuktu, Jack?” asked Jill.
- Jill asked Jack if how he was going to Timbuktu.
Past continuous and simple past tenses are used with while in a sentence to indicate two actions were going on at the same time in the past.
- While my brother was laughing, my sister was crying.
- My father was drinking while my mother was eating.
- While her cat was miaowing (meowing), his dog was barking.
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. The simple present and simple past tenses are used for stative verbs.
Some of the stative verbs are believe, desire, doubt, feel, forget, hear, know, like, love, notice, remember, see, smell, taste, understand, wish, and want.
- I forget your name.
(Not: I am forgetting your name.)
- He believes what I say.
(Not: He is believing what I say.)
- We understood the instructions.
(Not: We were understanding the instructions.)
- Do you hear that noise?
(Not: Are you hearing that 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 a bird flew over my head.
to show that an action or event described in the past continuous tense was going on when the event expressed in the simple past tense took place.
- They were having a barbecue when the rain started falling.
(The rain fell when the barbecue was in progress.)
- He was looking up the sky when he stepped in a puddle.
- Her puppy licked her ear when she was lying down.
- Everyone was going to bed when I woke up.
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.
- My house was being renovated, so I stayed in a nearby hotel.
- They arrived 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 the children doing sitting cross-legged on the floor?
- Was he feeling nervous going for the job interview?
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 Jill was reading a book, her mother was singing.
(Two actions were in progress simultaneously.)
- While I read a book, my mother sang.
(Two complete 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.)