The past continuous, or past progressive, is used to talk about actions that were in progress at a specific time in the past. It is created using the past of be (was/were) and the verb + ing (known as the present participle). See the links at the bottom of this page to download a PDF of this explanation as well as a number of present continuous activities.
Past continuous structure
Uses of the past continuous
There are many ways we can use the past continuous, including:
- To show an action was in progress at a particular time in the past
- To show an action in the past was interrupted by another action
- To show two actions in the past were in progress at the same time
- To emphasise the duration of a past action
- To show actions repeated in the past over a short time
- To emphasise that past habits were surprising or annoying
- To set the background scene of another event in the past
An action that was in progress around a specific time in the past
We can use the past continuous to say what action was in progress at a specific time in the past:
- I was still working at midnight last night.
- Helen was jogging yesterday morning.
- They were playing loud music at 7 o’clock in the morning.
Note: We don’t use the past continuous to talk about single completed past actions when the past action has no relation to another past action, when the past action was not in progress for the entirety of the past time, or when the continuous nature of the action is not important/relevant; instead, we use just the simple past:
I was going to the library yesterday. I went to the library yesterday. We were visiting Spain last year. We visited Spain last year. We were eating in a new restaurant last week. We ate in a new restaurant last week.
An action that was interrupted by another action in the past
We can also specify the time in the past with a when past time clause, often showing that the action contained in the clause interrupted the action in progress:
- I was taking a shower when you rang.
- When the robbery happened, Colin was washing his car.
- Mark and Jenny were shopping when they heard the news.
An action that happened in parallel with another continuous action in the past
We can use the past continuous to show that two actions in progress at the same time in the past using while or as past time clauses:
- I was cooking while my wife was taking a bath.
- Tim was cutting the grass as Pippa was doing her homework.
- As I was reading, my wife was watching TV.
Emphasis on the duration of an action in the past
We can use the past continuous to emphasise that an action lasted for a length of time. Typically, we use all + time or for + time to show how long the action lasted. This adds more emphasis on the duration than using the simple past:
- I was working on that report all week. (emphasis) / I worked on that report all week. (no emphasis)
- Carla and Tom were arguing for hours. (emphasis) / Carla and Tom argued for hours. (no emphasis)
- My neighbour was playing music all night. (emphasis) / My neighbour played music all night. (no emphasis)
Repeated actions that happened in a short/temporary period in the past
We can use the past continuous to show that an action was repeated with a frequency over a short period of time:
- I was travelling to London a lot in those days.
- Mark was working in Sheffield last month.
- They were having meetings every day last week.
Note: We don’t use the past continuous for general repeated actions. In this case, we use the simple past:
I was calling you five times last night. I called you five times last night. He was drinking six pints of beer last night. He drank six pints of beer last night. They were sending 20 emails yesterday. They sent 20 emails yesterday.
Past habits whose frequency was surprising, annoying or emphasised
We can use the past continuous to emphasise that a past habit was surprising or annoying, usually used with adverbs of frequency such as always, constantly, continuously, etc.
- He was always getting into trouble at school.
- My grandfather was always telling us war stories.
- They were constantly arguing with each when they first got married.
Note: We do not use the past continuous for general past habits. In this case, we use the simple past or used to:
I was playing the violin at school. I used to play the violin at school / I played the violin at school. She was speaking French when she was younger. She used to speak French when she was younger / She spoke French when she was younger. We were dancing the tango in our teenage years. We used to dance the tango in our teenage years. / We danced the tango in our teenage years.
Background information to an event in the past
The past continuous can be used as a narrative tense to set the scene for another more important action (this latter action is the real focus of the scene/sentence):
- I was having lunch with the CEO yesterday when he mentioned that we might need to make job cuts. (here, the fact that this person was having lunch with the CEO is just the background to the main piece of information)
- The birds were singing, and the sun was shining as Robin skipped down the street.
- Everything was as normal. The children were chasing each other around the playground. The teachers were chatting in the common room. Then, it happened.
Verbs that you cannot use with continuous tenses
Certain verbs cannot (usually) be used in continuous tenses. These are verbs that represent states rather than actions, and are known as state or stative verbs. Some common stative verbs include be, have (for possession), know, want, need, believe, like, love, hate and prefer. As these verbs represent states, the state either exists or it doesn’t at a particular time, rather than being ‘in progress’ like an action. Think of your mobile phone. You have a phone whether it is physically in your hand or not. So, this is not an action but a state, and therefore have and similar verbs cannot be used in continuous tenses.
- When I finished working out, I
was needingneeded a shower.
- When my wife told me she was pregnant, I
wasn’t believingdidn’t believe her.
- When her boss made that comment, she
was knowingknew she had to quit.
Click on the links below to download a PDF version of this page as well as a number of past continuous activities: