Past continuous tense

Past continuous tense

By Alena Lien, 

28 November 2020

Click below to expand each section. 

Form



Affirmative sentences


[subject] + ["was/were"] + [present participle of main verb]


The verb "to be" is an irregular verb and should not be contracted - both in written and spoken English. It is also possible to have the verb "to be" as both the auxiliary and main verb. 


Past tense conjugations of "to be":

  • I was

  • You were

  • We were

  • They were

  • He was

  • She was

  • It was



  • "I was eating lunch downstairs."

  • "They were being nice to him."




Negative sentences


[subject] + ["was/were not"] + [present participle of main verb]


"Was not" can be contracted to "wasn't," and "were not" can be contracted to "weren't."



  • "Sorry, I wasn't paying attention."

  • "I could tell the kids weren't enjoying themselves."




Questions


["was/were"] + [subject] + [present participle of main verb]


[question word] + ["was/were"] + [subject] + [present participle of main verb]


Question words are:

  • Who

  • What

  • When

  • Why

  • Where

  • Which

  • How


It is also possible to have the verb "to be" as both the auxiliary and main verb.



  • "Was he doing the dishes?

  • "Why were they laughing at me?"



It is possible to make negative questions even though their use is quite specific. The structure for full forms and contracted forms are slightly different. However, contracted forms are preferred in general.



Contracted form:

["wasn't/weren't"] + [subject] + [present participle of main verb]


[question words] + ["wasn't/weren't"] + [subject] +[present participle of main verb]



  • "Wasn't he doing the dishes?"

  • "Why weren't they laughing at the jokes?"



Full form:

["was/were"] + [subject] + ["not"] + [present participle of main verb]


[question word] + ["was/were"] + [subject] + ["not"] + [present participle of main verb]



  • "Was he not doing the dishes?"

  • "Why were they not laughing at the jokes?"




Dynamic vs Static verbs



When it comes to continuous tenses in general, they should be used with dynamic verbs, not stative verbs.



Dynamic verbs (or action verbs) indicate action or progress. Examples include "eat," "play," "work," and "sleep."


Stative verbs (or event verbs) are used to indicate a state or condition - that do not show qualities of change or progress. Examples include "believe," "love," "belong," and "know." These are typically not used in continuous tenses.


And then, there are verbs that are both dynamic and stative which can be used in the present continuous tense. Like "think," "be," "have," "see" and "taste."



Incorrect examples:

  • "I was understanding the concept."

  • "They were needing some help."


 

Having said that, it is also common for native speakers to use continuous tenses with stative verbs even if it is grammatically incorrect. Quite often this is done to express exaggeration or emphasise their feelings. 



Grammatically incorrect but idiomatic examples:

  • "I was loving the music."

  • "We were believing every word he said."




Timeline

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Uses



The past continuous tense can be used by itself, but it is also commonly used in combination with other tenses to create meaning.



Past continuous tense only


1.   To talk about an event in progress around a particular time in the past.


Although the event happened in the past, using the past continuous can emphasise that an action or state continued for a period of time.



  • "I was playing the piano."

  • "I remember you were wearing a hat at the party."



+   Time expressions - to refer to a definite period of time in the past.


  • "I was playing the piano for 2 hours."

  • "They were partying all night."




2.   To talk about ongoing or repeated events in the past.



  • "I was reading a book by Bram Stoker but I found it difficult to understand."

  • "We were going to the gym pretty regularly last year."



3.   To express problematic regular actions.



+   "Always," "constantly," or "forever"


  • "I was constantly worrying about the future."

  • "She was always throwing things out."




4.   To talk about events that happened at the same time.


Here, you would use the past continuous twice.



  • "I was shopping online and the kids were watching cartoons."

  • "It was raining while she was driving home."







Past continuous + other tenses


5.   To express a change of mind.



Past continuous:

  • "We were planning to start a family...


+   Present perfect:

  • ... but we've decided to wait a bit longer."


+   Past simple:

  • ... but we decided to wait a bit longer."


+   "Going to":

  • ... but we're going to wait a bit longer."




6.   To describe interrupted past actions.



+   Past simple - to describe what happened in the middle of a past activity, or what interrupted a past activity that was in progress.


  • "I was having coffee when I ran into Jake."

  • "It started to rain while she was driving home."




7.   To provide a reason or context for a past event.



+ Past simple - to provide a reason or context for what happened.


  • "I couldn't pick up the phone because I was driving."

  • "They were visiting Melbourne, so I invited them to dinner."




8.   To provide the background or context of a story.



+ Past simple - to tell a story in the past tense.


  • "The sun was shining through the blinds. The birds were singing from the tree in the backyard. Eve woke up with a throbbing headache - she had met up with Sandra and was drinking all night."




More verb tenses