The past continuous tense is used to describe actions that began in the past and often continued for a short period of time after the action started. This tense describes actions or events that happened at a specific time in the past. These actions are usually no longer happening at the time the sentence is being said or written.
The past continuous is formed from the past tense of "to be" with the base of the main verb plus the ending "-ing" form of the verb.
It is formed like this: Subject + was/were + continuous form of the verb ending in -ing
One example of this tense is: I was watching television when she called me last night. The past continuous tense is "was watching." Another example of this tense is: We were playing football when he sprained his wrist last week. The past continuous tense is "were playing."
The following are basic examples of the past continuous tense. The verb tense in each sentence is underlined.
- When we got to the house yesterday morning, the baby was drinking a bottle.
- He was waiting at home all day when she sent him the message.
- Alan was cutting the grass the other day when the snake appeared.
- I was not sleeping when you got home late last night.
You can also use this tense to make a question. Examples of this use include:
- What were you doing when the alarm went off last night?
- Were you calling me when I emailed you this afternoon?
- What was she doing this time yesterday?
Past continuous tense is often combined with past simple tense. An example of this combination is: While we were sitting at the stadium, the rain began. The past continuous tense is "were sitting" and the past simple is "began."
In this combination, the simple past tense interrupted the past progressive tense action. This pairing shows that something happened in the middle of something else happening.
Past continuous tense can also be used when describing the background of a story written in the past tense. Examples of this use include:
- The sun was shining brightly when...
- Last month as I was sitting outside...
- The other day I was waiting at the airport when...
- Last week as I was sitting in traffic....
- When the alarm went off yesterday, we were running towards the road...
Past continuous tense can be used when describing an unfinished action that was interrupted by another action. The action in the past started before the other action and continued after for a short period of time. Examples of this use include:
- I was having a great conversation with him when his ex-girlfriend interrupted it.
- I was having a terrifying dream when the alarm clock went off at six o'clock this morning.
- While we were playing tennis, it started to rain.
- I was listening to my music, so I didn't hear the phone ring.
- While she was sleeping, someone took her phone.
- I was making dinner when he arrived at my house this evening.
Past continuous can also be used to express a change of mind or thought that happened in the past. Examples of this use include:
- He was going to pack a ham sandwich for lunch but he decided to make a peanut butter and jelly instead.
- Dan was going to accept the job offer in New York but changed his mind later.
- I was going to spend the afternoon at the mall but decided to stay home instead.
Past continuous tense can be used to show that two actions were going on at the same time in the past. Neither of these actions are happening in the present. Examples of this use include:
- Marc was making pizza while Anthony was watching him.
- She was playing the piano while Ann was singing on stage.
- We were sitting outside while the planes were flying overhead.
Past continuous tense can be used with the word "wonder." When using it this way, it is used as a request. The request is not happening now and was made in the past. Examples of this use include:
- I was wondering if you could walk the dog for me this evening.
- She was wondering if you could babysit after school today.
- We were wondering if she was able to meet us at noon.
- I was wondering if you could open the door.
Past continuous can be used with the words always, constantly and forever. When using it this way, it is used to talk about things that happened repeatedly but occurred in the past. The action is not happening now and was a temporary habit. Examples of this use include:
- Our neighbor was always telling us funny stories about his daughter.
- Grandma was constantly singing songs when she made us breakfast.
- My husband was always talking about friends from school.
- She was always taking all my ideas.
- I was forever worrying if I would make the team.
The past continuous tense is important since it is used when mentioning actions or events that happened at a specific time in the past and which are generally no longer are happening now. This tense can be used alone or can be combined with past simple tense to show that an action or event happened in the middle of another action. It gives a sense of the order of events and when events of the past happened relative to one another.