Past Continuous: Rules and Examples

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The Past Continuous is easy to understand. The rules of its forms aren’t complicated to learn.

If you learn The Past Continuous your speaking becomes much more vivid. Because you will be able to speak about what happened in the past in progress.

What does this tense mean?

We use the Past Continuous to express continuous processes that happened at a certain point in the past. This moment can be indicated by words or phrases:

Yesterday when you called me I was working.

Three days ago, John was driving home and saw a deer!

We were swimming because the weather was good.

When mom came home, we were cleaning the apartment.

The moment when the action takes place can be understood from the context:

What were you doing last night?
I was reading a book.

Where was John yesterday?
He was playing football with his friends.

Remember that in order to use the Past Continuous we definitely need some moment in the past.

For example, in the Past Simple, we can simply talk about the past without specifying the time or specifying it approximately:

I studied well.

She once worked as a waitress.

In the Past Continuous, we must somehow indicate the time in the past. To make it clear exactly when the action described in the Past Continuous occurred.

When Jessica got home, John was reading a book.

In this example, When Jessica came home this is a point in the past, and John was reading a book this is a sentence written in the Past Continuous. This is a continuous action in the past.

It does not matter if the action in the past began long before the specified moment or continued after the specified moment. In the Past Continuous, the very fact that at the specified moment some action was in progress (was happening) is important.

When John got home, John’s wife was cooking.

In this sentence, it doesn’t matter how long John’s wife cooked before John came home. In this sentence, it doesn’t matter how long John’s wife continued to cook afterward. The important fact is that at the moment when John came home, his wife was in the process of cooking.

The mechanism of an antique clock wrapped in a magic mist, text Past Continuous Full Guide.

How to form sentences

The Past Continuous is very simple to form. For this we need two components:

The first component is: the past form of the verb to be. In the past tense, the verb to be looks like was or were. It depends on who is the subject in the sentence.

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

The verb to be in the Past Continuous can serve as an auxiliary. This means that the verb to be not only shows the time when the action takes place but also helps to form questions and negative sentences.

The second component is: Participle I. That is the main verb in its base form with the -ing ending. Thus, the verb expresses duration.

In case you forgot, base verbs look like this:

  • work
  • read
  • walk
  • speak
  • jump
  • type
  • watch

If we add the -ing ending to such verbs, they look like this:

  • working
  • reading
  • walking
  • speaking
  • jumping
  • typing
  • watching

Thus we get Participle I. Or in simple words “a verb with -ing”.

For some verbs, we can simply add the -ing ending without changing anything. For some verbs, we cannot simply add the -ing ending. The addition of the -ing ending to such verbs follows special rules.

How to form Affirmative (Positive) Sentences in Past Continuous

To form an affirmative (positive) sentence, we put the subject first. After the subject, we put the right form of the verb to be. After that, we put the main verb with the -ing ending. Then we can add the rest of the sentence if needed.

Subject (I, you, they, John, dog) + to be (was, were) + main verb with -ing (reading, running, speaking) + rest of the sentence.

When Jessica called me, I was walking down the street.

Last night at this time my mother was preparing food.

We were all watching a soccer game when the TV suddenly broke!

FullShort
I wasno short form
He wasHe’s
She wasShe’s
It wasIt’s
We wereWe’re
They wereThey’re
You wereYou’re

How we contract to be in positive sentences in past tenses?

Usually we contract the verb to be in the past tense in this way:

  • I was – does not have a short form.
  • He was – He’s
  • She was – She’s
  • It was – It’s
  • We were – We’re
  • They were – They’re
  • You were – You’re

How to form Interrogative (Question) Sentences in Past Continuous

To form an interrogative (question) sentence, we put the right form of the verb to be at the beginning of the sentence. Then we put in the subject. After the subject, we put the main verb with the -ing ending.

to be (was, were) + Subject (I, you, they, John, dog) + main verb with -ing (reading, running, speaking) + rest of the sentence.

Were you playing football this morning?

Was John working when you called him?

To ask a Wh-Question (such a question in which there are question words to get a more detailed answer) we use exactly the same construction as for a General or Yes/No Questions you see above. Only we add a question word or phrase to the beginning of the construction:

Where were you playing football this morning?

Why was John working when you called him?

How to form Negative Sentences in Past Continuous

To form a negative sentence, we put the subject first. After the subject, we put the right form of the verb to be with the negative not. Then we put the main verb with the -ing ending.

Subject (I, you, they, John, dog) + to be (was, were) + not + main verb with -ing (reading, running, speaking) + rest of the sentence.

I was not reading your journal when you came!

Your friends were not making any plans when I asked them.

The cameras were not working that night.

How we contract to be in negative sentences in past tenses?

We contract the verb to be with not in the past as follows:

was not – wasn’t

were not – weren’t

  • I wasn’t
  • He wasn’t
  • She wasn’t
  • It wasn’t
  • We weren’t
  • They weren’t
  • You weren’t

Maybe I wasn’t doing it for you.

I thought you weren’t working.

I wasn’t doing my job.

Where to use Past Continuous. Examples and explanations.

Let’s take a look at the most popular use cases for the Past Continuous:

  1. We use the Past Continuous to describe an action that took place at a certain point in the past.

Therefore, we often indicate when exactly this action took place (or it is clear from the context).

We often use additional words such as Yesterday, Two days ago, at 5 pm, When I got home, When you called me, At that very moment, Then, etc.

At that time he was walking towards my house.

When I looked at them everybody was jumping over the bonfires.

  1. We use the Past Continuous to describe some actions in the past to show that the action was interrupted by some second action.

We usually express the second action using the Past Simple.

We were watching TV when there was a loud bang.

John was driving when Jessica called him.

  1. We use the Past Continuous to describe some action that has gradually developed in the past.

The Past Continuous focuses on the progress/process of an event, on the fact that it did not just happen, but was in the process.

The crime rate was rising …

He was getting closer and closer to me.

I discovered they were developing a new project.

  1. We can use the Past Continuous when we would like to know how someone spent time.

The Past Continuous focuses on process, so such questions sound more polite than if we use Simple tenses.

Anyways, what were you reading?

So, what were you watching last night?

  1. We use the Past Continuous to describe an action that has lasted for the entire specified period of time in the past.

We indicate such a period of time using two time points “Yesterday from 5 pm to 6 pm …”, or using one time point “last night”.

Students were working during the academic year in their free time.

We were writing letters from 5 to 7 pm.

  1. We use the Past Continuous when telling stories or recalling something that happened.

We use the Past Continuous in this case because continuous verbs create an atmosphere or background for some other actions. In stories like this, we usually use the Past Continuous along with the Past Simple.

The children were playing on the playground, their teacher thought that it was time for him to find a new job.

The player was running with the ball, the fans were shouting supporting the player, the team’s coach waved his arms trying to explain something to his players.

A sentence show an example of how to use past continuous and past simple together, soccer field and soccer ball.
How we use Past Continuous and Past Simple together.
  1. We use the Past Continuous to describe two, three, or more actions that happened in the past at the same time.

If there are many such actions, you must think carefully, did these actions really take place at the same time? If the actions did not occur at the same time, then it is better to use the Past Simple.

The dog was running around the yard, the cat was sitting on a branch.

I was working at the computer, the kids were watching TV and Jessica was cooking dinner.

  1. We use the Past Continuous when we talk about some action, plans, or event that was planned in the past but never happened.

We often use words like Intended, Wanted, Tried, Planned, Hoped, Expected, etc. These words emphasize that we were about to do something.

He was trying to protect her, but it was too late.

We were planning a trip up the coast, but then I got a new job.

  1. We use the Past Continuous to express disapproval, dissatisfaction, or annoyance with someone or something in the past.

For such expressions, we use words or phrases that additionally express our dissatisfaction. These are words and phrases such as: Always, All the time, Constantly, Time after time, Day after day, All the time, etc.

He was constantly losing his keys, his wallet, phone.

  1. We use the Past Continuous to talk about our or someone else’s habits in the past.

Remember that such expressions have a negative meaning, so we use such expressions to talk about unpleasant habits.

He was shouting at me all the time.

My son was always complaining about his teachers.

  1. We use the Past Continuous to describe an action that has been repeated many times in the past.

Often in such sentences, we use words that show the constancy of the action: always, constantly, over and over again, etc.

My father was saying not to waste money on unnecessary things.

John was asking to be attentive to detail.

Mom was saying every time that we should be patient.

  1. We use the Past Continuous to tell about a situation in the past that was temporary.

We were working on a new study last month but then the project was canceled.

Last month I was working at a construction site because I needed money.

Example of a sentence in past continuous, construction workers work at a construction site, text last month I was working at a construction site because I needed money.

Second Conditional

We use The Second Conditional to express unreal situations in the present or future.

This means that the chances of such situations occurring are very low. This is unlikely.

The Second Conditional consist of two parts:

if-clause which is formed with IF + the Past Simple , (comma!)
main clause which is formed with WOULD + V1

Usually, in the conditional part (after the IF), we only use the past tense! In the main part, we use would with the infinitive without the particle to (the first form of the verb, V1).

But sometimes we use the Past Continuous in The Second Conditional. When we want to emphasize that the action is continuous, progressive. Of course, the Past Continuous is good for this task!

Note: Remember, even if we use the Past Continuous, the situation in the sentence refers to the present or the future! Not to the past.

If my leg wasn’t hurting, I would go to play football

Infographic shows how to form the second conditional, if plus the past simple comma main clause which is formed with would plus the first form of the verb.
The second conditional.

What is the difference between Past Continuous and Past Simple?

Many English learners confuse the Past Continuous and the Past Simple and do not know in which situation what tense to use. Especially since the Past Continuous and the Past Simple are often used together.

Most often, the Past Continuous and the Past Simple help each other, because the Past Continuous expresses continuous actions in the past, and the Past Simple expresses one-time or regular actions in the past.

A finger over two buttons, one button is called past continuous, the second button is called past simple
How to chose which tense to use?

Usually the Past Continuous and the Past Simple are separated by words such as:

  • Until
  • Meanwhile
  • Then
  • when
  • Before
  • After
  • While

I was reading a book when my dad got home from work.

She was walking down the street when she suddenly met her friend John.

Look at the following rules to find out which tense to use in certain situations:

Rule 1. We use the Past Continuous if two actions (or more than two) happened at the same time in the past.

Children were playing football and I was gardening

Rule 2. We use the Past Simple if actions in the past occur one after the other. Because the Past Simple describes actions that logically occur one after another.

Rule 3. This rule is very important. Remember, if you have the word while in your sentence, you must use the Past Continuous after that word.

John pulled out a wedding ring while Jessica was dancing…

Rule 4. If the sentence contains the word When, then after the When you can use both the Past Continuous and the Past Simple.

He called me when I was reading a book

You saw me when I walked in.

Rule 5. If in the past one action interrupted another action, then we use the Past Continuous to express the action that was interrupted. We use the Past Simple to show the action that interrupted another action.

This is logical: If some action was interrupted, then it lasted for some time. For continuous actions, we use the Past Continuous.

We were watching TV when the dog barked.

Rule 6. We use the Past Continuous to describe an action if we know that this action was in progress, and we know WHEN the action took place in the past.

We must indicate the time when this action happened. Or it must be clear from the context of the sentence.

We were dancing at the party last night.

How not to confused the Short form of to be in past and present

You probably noticed that the short form of the verb to be in the past tense looks the same as the short form of the verb to be in the present tense:

To be in the PastShort formTo be in the PresentShort form
He wasHe’sHe isHe’s
She wasShe’sShe isShe’s
It wasIt’sIt isIt’s
We wereWe’reWe are We’re
They were They’reThey areThey’re
You wereYou’reYou areYou’re
How not to be confused?

How not get confused about what tense the verb to be is in?

You must use the context of the sentence or use other verbs to show what tense it is:

When my parents arrived home, we’re playing the game.

In this sentence, we’re means we were. Because the verb arrived in the first part of the sentence indicates that it is the past tense.

Look, she’s running so fast!

In this sentence, “she is” is the Present Simple. Because we see that the verb “Look” is in the Present Simple.

We also can understand the form of the verb to be from the context.

For example, if we are telling a story and everyone knows that we are telling a story about something in the past. In this case, it is clear that the short form of the verb to be is the Past Continuous.

NOTE: If you are not sure that you will be understood correctly, you can use the verb to be without contraction.

Past Continuous and words that indicate some period of time

We CAN use the Past Continuous with words that indicate some period of time such as:

  • all-day
  • throughout the day
  • an hour
  • at lunchtime
  • in the morning
  • this day
  • this morning
  • that evening
    etc.

But we must know for sure that this period of time has already ended!

Look at the sentence:

I’ve been working this morning.

We CANNOT use the Past Continuous in that sentence if this morning is not over yet.

But if the morning has already ended and now it is lunch or evening, we can use the Past Continuous in such a case.

If you are talking about some period of time that has not yet ended, then we should use a completely different tense. We must use the Present Perfect or Present Perfect Continuous.

Markers of Past Continuous

The Past Continuous, like any other tenses, has its own markers, special words or phrases often used with the Past Continuous.

Here are the most popular ones:

  • all day
  • all day long
  • the whole day
  • all evening
  • the whole evening
  • last Wednesday
  • last month
  • last year
  • at that moment
  • at the same time
  • while
  • when
  • as
  • all evening
  • the whole evening
Infographic shows past continuous markers, all day. when, as, last month, etc.
Past Continuous Markers.

Additional Information

Look at a few extra tips to keep in mind when using the Past Continuous.

We use the Past Continuous to describe actions when the actions were continuous, in progress.

I was cleaning the apartment all evening.

But we use the Past Simple if this action was interrupted or if we mention how many times this action happened in the past.

I cleaned the apartment several times yesterday.

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