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Detailed Explanation of the Past Continuous Tense

We use it to describe previous actions that continued, as opposed to the simple past tense.

Nina Stankovic
Nina Stankovic

One of the frequently used and not-so-complicated past tenses in English is Past Continuous (Past Progressive tense). We use it to describe previous actions that continued, as opposed to the simple past tense. The Past Continuous Tense is built from the verb “to be” in the Past Simple Tense, i.e., was/were, and the Present Participle of the main verb.

The Past Continuous sentence construction

The past continuous tense formula is simple to understand and remember.

  1. Affirmative form:
Subject + TO BE (was / were) + infinitive + -ing
We were sleeping.

2. Interrogative form:

TO BE (was/were) + Subject + infinitive + -ing
Were we sleeping?

3. Negative form:

Subject + TO BE (was/were) + not + infinitive + -ing
We were not sleeping.

Past continuous tense usage with examples

We can use the past continuous tense for:

  • An action that took a long time in the past.
She was reading a book all day yesterday.
You were building a tree house for birds for a while.
  • Two actions happened in parallel in the past tense.
While I was watching TV, my sister was doing her homework.
Jenifer was working on her assignment while I was riding a bike.
  • The action that was interrupted is always in the Past Simple Tense, whereas the activity that lasted longer is always in the Past Continuous Tense.
People were watching the game when the telephone rang.
They were playing bingo when we finally showed up.

❗️Note: Verbs not used in the Present Continuous Tense are not used in the Past Continuous Tense either. In this case, we will use a verb in the Past Simple Tense instead.

The time expressions most often used with the Past Continuous tense are:

  1. When

It indicates actions that continued in the past but were interrupted by some other past action.

John was watching TV in the living room when his wife came from the academy.

In the above sentence, we can see that the wife’s arrival from the academy interrupted the viewing of their TV show (one action interrupted another). The action that ended another action is always in the Past Simple Tense, whereas the action that went on for a longer period is in the Past Continuous Tense.

2. While

We use “while” to indicate two parallel actions that took place in the past.

I was reading a newspaper while my mommy was cooking.

You may notice that we use Past Continuous for both actions!

In addition to the above examples, we can use identical adverb clauses for the Past Simple, for example, “yesterday,” “last week/year,” “in 2020/1997,” etc.

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Frequently asked questions about Past Progressive (Past Continuous) tense

  1. How do you form the passive tense of the Past Continuous Tense?

First, we’ll start with the active sentence:

The firm was making a new design.

As we know, to make a passive sentence, we need to recognize the object in the active sentence (in our case, it is “a new design”). When we recognize the object, we put it first. That is, the object becomes the subject.

The auxiliary verb remains the same (in our example, “was”), but after it, we add “being,” while the main verb changes to the past participle. The subject (“the firm”) turns into an object.

A new design was being made by the firm.

2. What about when the verb ends in -e?

If the verb ends with the vowel “-e,” it is lost when we add the suffix -ing.

This group includes verbs: to joke—joking, to come—coming, to make—making, to take—taking, etc.

3. What about when the verb ends in -ie?

When we add the suffix -ing, then -ie changes to -y.

This group includes verbs: to tie—tying, to die—dying, to lie—lying, etc.

What is Past Continuous? Summarizing

As the name continuous suggests, Past Continuous represents a permanent past tense and shows an action that happened and took place sometime in the past. It is understood that the activity ended in the past. Another name for this tense is Past Progressive.

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Nina Stankovic

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