The past continuous tense is formed with the past tense form of “be” and the present participle (-ING form) of the main verb.
subject + “was/were” + present participle of verb
- “I was eating lunch downstairs.”
- “They were being nice to him.”
* Please note: The verb, “be,” is an irregular verb and cannot be contracted with pronouns.
subject + “was/were not” + present participle of verb
subject + “wasn’t/weren’t” + present participle of verb
- “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”
- “I could tell the kids weren’t enjoying themselves.”
(a) “was/were” + subject + present participle of verb
(b) question word + “was/were” + subject + present participle of verb
- “Was he doing the dishes?
- “Why were they laughing at me?”
It is possible to make negative questions even though their uses are quite specific. [See also: Negative questions]
The structure for full forms and contracted forms are slightly different. Contracted forms are preferred in general.
(a) “wasn’t/weren’t” + subject + present participle of verb
(b) question word + “wasn’t/weren’t” + subject + present participle of verb
(a) “was/were” + subject + “not” + present participle of verb
(b) question word + “was/were” + subject + “not” + present participle of verb
- “Wasn’t he doing the dishes?”
- “Was he not doing the dishes?”
Uses of the Past continuous tense
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.”
a. With time expressions – To refer to a definite period of time in the past.
This refers to the past with time markers like “yesterday,” “last month,” or “in 2010.”
- “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. With “always,” “constantly,” or “forever” – To express problematic regular actions.
- “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.
“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. With past simple tense – To describe interrupted past actions.
This is used 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. With past simple tense – To provide a reason or context for a past event.
- “I couldn’t pick up the phone because I was driving.”
- “They were visiting Melbourne, so I invited them to dinner.”
8. With past simple tense – To provide the background or context of a story.
- “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.”
Original post: 28 November 2020