The past continuous tense is formed with the past tense of the verb to be (was/were) + present participle (verbs ending in ...ing).
||I/he/she/it was eating spaghetti at 8 o'clock last night.
||You/we/they were eating spaghetti at 8 o'clock last night
The past continuous tense questions are formed with was/were + subject + ... ing.
Example: What were you doing exactly twenty-four hours ago? (NOT: What did you do exactly
twenty-four hours ago?)
The past continuous tense is used:
- for an action that was taking place in the past when a shorter action (expressed in the simple past tense) happened.
Example: I was camping when I got stung by a bee.
Example: When I visited him in the hospital, he was snoring loudly.
Example: While he was reading the newspaper, he fell asleep.
Example: While I was talking to him, his eyes looked somewhere else.
Note: The past continuous tense and the simple past tense are used together
- with while to describe two actions that were going on at the same time in the past.
Example: While my brother was laughing, my sister was crying.
Example: My father was drinking while my mother was eating.
- for an action that was happening and not yet finished at a particular time or throughout a period of time in the past. We do not state when the action started or ended.
Example: Grandma was knitting a sock at 11 o'clock last night.
Example: They were hunting wild boars all evening.
- to show that we were in the middle of an action.
Example: I was collecting old newspapers. (I was in the middle of doing the collecting.)
Example: The police sirens were wailing.
- in Reported or Indirect Speech.
||"Are you catching a train to Timbuktu, Jack?" asked Jill.
||Jill asked Jack if he was catching a train to Timbuktu.
- to describe the introductory scene for a story written in the past tense.
Example: The sun was shining after weeks of rain. The flowers were waving in the breeze.
Verbs not normally used in the continuous form
We use the continuous tenses, both past and present, with actions but not with verbs that refer to states and feelings. The simple past tense and simple present tense are used for such stative verbs. Some of the stative verbs include: feel, hear, see, smell, taste, believe, doubt, forget, know, understand, wish, like, love, desire, notice, remember, and want..
Example: I forget your name. (NOT I am forgetting your name.)
Example: I forgot your name. (NOT I was forgetting your name.)
Example: He believes what I say. (NOT He is believing what I say.)
Example: We understood the instructions. (NOT We were understanding the instructions.)
Example: Do you hear that noise? (NOT: Are you hearing that noise?)
Example: Did you hear that noise? (NOT: Were you hearing that noise?)
Example: I understand the instructions. (NOT: I am understanding the instructions.)
The passive form of the past continuous tense
The passive form consists of was or were + being + the past participle of the verb.
We use the passive form of the past continuous tense to express an action done to the subject. The action must be in the past and must be unfinished at the time concerned.
Example: My house was being renovated so I stayed in a nearby hotel.
Example: They arrived while dinner was being prepared.
We use when with the past continuous and simple past tenses:
- to show that an action or event described in the past continuous tense started before the event expressed in the simple past tense.
Example: Two women were fighting in the street when the police arrived. (The fighting started before the police arrived.)
- to show that an action or event described in the past continuous tense was going on when the event expressed in the simple past tense took place.
Example: They were having a barbecue when the rain started falling. (The rain fell when the barbecue was in progress.)
- to show time order of events.
Example: When I woke up, my brother was brushing his teeth. (I woke up during his brushing his teeth.)
Example: When I woke up, my brother brushed his teeth. (I woke up, then my brother brushed his teeth.)
Example: He was bathing his pet puppy when I visited him. (He started the bathing before my visit and the bathing was in progress at the time of my visit.)
Example: He bathed his pet puppy when I visited him. (Two complete events: I visited him and then he bathed his pet.)
- Difference in time order between past continuous tense and simple past tense.
1. When we reached there, it rained.
2. When we reached there, it was raining.
In (1), reaching there then raining started.
In (2), reaching there when it was raining.
Note the differences between these sentences:
Example: He was writing a letter yesterday. (Letter was not finished yesterday.)
Example: He wrote a letter yesterday. (Completed the letter.)
Example: While Jill was reading a book, her mother was sleeping. (Two actions in progress simultaneously.)
Example: While I read a book, my mother slept. (Two complete events happened simultaneously.)
Example: My father was having a shave at 7 o'clock. (The shave started before 7 o'clock and was still in progress at 7 o'clock.)
Example: My father had a shave at 7 o'clock. (The shave started at 7 o'clock until completion.)
a) They were watching television all night. (Watching television went on throughout the night.)
b) They watched
television all night. (Watching television from the beginning to the end of the night.)
(a) and (b) have the same meaning.
c) When she came in, I was dreaming
. (She came in at the time of my dreaming.)
d) She came in while I was dreaming
. (She came in during my dreaming.)
(c) and (d) have the same meaning.
The past continuous tense and the past perfect tense
a) I was eating when Bob came.
b) I had eaten when Bob came.
In (a): The past continuous tense expresses an activity that was in progress when another event took place.
In (b): The past perfect tense expresses an activity that was completed before another event took place.