The past continuous — also known as the past progressive — is formed by using the verb ‘to be’ in the past tense, plus the ‘–ing’ form of a verb (known as the present participle). For example: running, writing, eating, watching, etc.

The past tense of the verb ‘to be’ changes, depending on the person we are referring to:

I was
You were
He was
She was
It was
We were
They were

e.g. ‘I was reading’; ‘you were playing’; ‘she was dancing’; ‘they were learning’; etc.

The past continuous can be used in several ways. Let’s look at them in turn.

Firstly, and perhaps most simply, it can be used to describe an action that was in progress at a particular time in the past. Note that the action had not finished at that time — it was still continuing. It started before the time we mention and finished after it. Unless we are answering a question in which the particular time has already been mentioned, we need to state a time when using the past continuous, otherwise it has no meaning. If I say ‘I was walking’, it doesn’t really mean anything. When was I walking?

Example: I go to sleep at 11pm. I wake up at 8am.


At 2am I was sleeping.

In the example above we used ‘2am’, but of course we could also have said 12am, 1am, 3am, 7.59am, or any point in between 11pm and 8am. The point is that at the time we mention, that action was occurring. Another example:

I was eating dinner at 9pm.

Do we know when I started my dinner? No. Or when I finished? Again, no. But we do know that at 9pm – at that particular time — I was eating dinner.

Imagine you are suspected of involvement in a bank robbery. At the police station, the detective asks you what you were doing at 1pm yesterday. The structure of a question in the past continuous is simple enough: as with most English questions, move the subject after the first auxiliary verb, as below:

I was speaking ….. Was I speaking?
They were watching a film ….. Were they watching a film?
You were doing at 1pm yesterday …. What were you doing at 1pm yesterday?

You would need to use the past continuous to communicate your innocence. “I was watching TV/working/studying English…”

At this point, it might be useful to look at how we construct a negative sentence in the past continuous. It’s easy: put the word ‘not’ before the ‘-ing’ word, as in the examples below:

I was eating ice cream ……. I was not eating ice cream
He was smoking …….. He was not smoking
I was robbing a bank ……. I was not robbing a bank

You may have noticed something about the spelling of the word ‘smoking’. Look again. How is it different from the infinitive ‘to smoke’? That’s right – we drop the letter ‘e’. We do this with most verbs that end in the letter ‘e’ when we add the suffix ‘-ing’, e.g. dance – dancing; leave – leaving; crave – craving, etc. (There are exceptions, but don’t worry; this is the general rule. Note that we don’t change a verb that has the letters ‘ee’ at the end, for example: agree-agreeing.)

Two more spelling rules to note:

a) when a verb ends in a single consonant, preceded by a single vowel, we double the final consonant before adding ‘-ing’, e.g. run-running; tap-tapping; plan-planning, etc.

b) when a verb ends in the letter ‘y’, we don’t remove the ‘y’ – we simply add ‘-ing’ to the end of the verb, e.g. study-studying; try-trying; etc.

Let’s move on to another use of the past continuous — when one action was in progress and then something else occurred. For example: I was watching TV when the phone rang.

Note that the first action (‘I was watching TV’) is in the past continuous, whereas the second action is in the past simple (‘when the phone rang’). This means that I was watching TV before the telephone rang. Maybe I continued to watch TV after the telephone conversation finished: we don’t know. But we know what I was doing when the telephone rang.

You could reverse the sentence without changing the tenses or the meaning, but it would seem a little strange: The phone rang when I was watching TV. Generally the past continuous goes first in the sentence, i.e. I was doing A when B happened.

Another example:

We were sitting in the classroom when the teacher walked in.

One more use of the past continuous is when two (or more) actions were in progress at the same time in the past. In these cases, instead of using past continuous – past simple, we simply use past continuous – past continuous, like below:

I was watching TV whilst my wife was cooking dinner.
They were playing football while the girls were playing hockey.
Mary was reading whilst James was playing on his Xbox.

There is no difference between ‘while’ and ‘whilst’ – they both mean ‘at the same time as’.

Check out our blog to see how you manage with the past continuous.

A. Porter

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