What Is the Past Progressive (continuous)?

The past continuous in English is a verb tense that is used to talk about continuing actions that took place in the past. There are many situations in which the past continuous is used in a sentence.

When to Use:

1. Interruption in the Past

We use the past continuous to indicate an interruption in the past:

  • was reading a book when he called me.
  • When the phone rang, we were having dinner.
  • While we were playing tennis, it started to rain.
  • What were you doing when the game started?

2. Specific Interruption in the Past

To indicate a specific interruption in the past:

  • Last night at 2 AM, I was watching a documentary.
  • At noon, we were still driving through the city.
  • Yesterday at this same time, I was working on my project.

3. Multiple events in the Past

To show that two or more actions are happening at the same time in the past:

  • was cleaning while she was doing dishes.
  • While the professor was lecturing, Tim was sleeping.
  • Thomas was not working, and I was not studying.
  • They were eating breakfast, discussing future plans, and watching the news.

4. Repetition

With repetition and word “always”:

  • He was always coming to work on time.
  • She was constantly nagging. She annoyed everyone.
  • They were not accepted because they were always complaining.

How to Use:

The past continuous is formed using:
was/were + present participle.
The negative – simply by adding ’not’ :

PositiveNegative
I was writingI was not (wasn’t) writing
You were sleepingYou were not (weren’t) sleeping
He was workingHe was not (wasn’t) working
She was readingShe was not (wasn’t) reading
It was rainingIt was not (wasn’t) raining
We were shoppingWe were not (weren’t) shopping
They were watching basketballThey were not (weren’t) watching basketball

To form ’yes / no’ questions, simply put ’was / were’ in front of the subject:

’Yes / No’ Question ’WH’ Question
Was I sleeping?Why was I sleeping?
Were you working?Where were you working?
Was she cooking?How was she cooking?
Was he living in London at the time?Where was he living at the time?
Was it snowing when you arrived?Why was it snowing in the summer?
Were we watching something?What were we watching?
Were they studying?Why were they studying?
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