Use of the past continuous

(Explanation of the progressive form of the English past tense)

Table of contents – past continuous

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Use of the past continuous
  2. Formation of the past continuous
  3. Further explanations and exercises

When do we use the past continuous?

Basically, the past continuous (or sometimes called past progressive) is used to express a process (or an action) that took place before now, which also means that it is over. The main point of this type of tense is to emphasize the process itself. The continuous form does not say anything about the length of the process although very short actions would rather be expressed in the past simple. The following cases are typical for the past continuous:

  • It is frequently used for actions that were ongoing at a specific point in time in the past:
    • “Yesterday at 7 o’clock in the morning I was reading the newspaper.”
  • It is also common when one action in the past was happening when another one started or a sudden one took place. The ongoing process may – or may not – have ended:
    • “Sue was walking home when the accident happened.”
      • Sue did not stop and hence the action of walking did not terminate.
    • “They were driving on the highway when their car broke down.”
      • They could not go any further. The action ended.
  • Another way of using the past continuous is by describing two processes that were happening at the same time in the past (often in combination with key words like ‘while’ or ‘when’):
    • “She was watching TV while her husband was preparing dinner.”
  • The past progressive describes actions that took place over a delimited period in the past:
    • “I was living alone when they broke into my house.”
      • Now the person does not live alone anymore. That period of time is over.
    • “Patrick was studying in London at the time of the earthquake.”
      • Patrick’s studies are over. The process ended.
  • In conjunction with the adverb ‘always’ the past continuous can describe habits or regular actions in the past that the speaker perceived as annoying:
    • “The salesman was always calling me.”

What is the rule for conjugation of the past continuous?

To form the past progressive two parts are needed: the past form of ‘to be’ and the present participle (which is the ing-form of the verb). The ing-form usually corresponds to the infinitive (base form) of the corresponding verb with the additional termination ‘-ing’. Compare in detail:

Rule for conjugation of the past continuous

Conjugated past form of ‘to be’ + present participle (ing-form)

Example verb forms

Example verbs: ‘to drive, to sing, to jump

Pronoun Auxiliary verb ‘to be Present participle (main verb)
I was driving
he/she/it was singing
we/you/they were jumping

Further explanations related to the topic ‘Past continuous’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Use of the past continuous (the progressive form of the English past tense)’ and may also be interesting:

  • Formation of the past continuous
  • Formation of the past simple of ‘to be’
  • Use of adverbs in the English language
  • Auxiliary verbs in the English language
  • Exercise 1 use of the past progressive
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