Past Continuous Tense. Free English Lesson with Test and Certificate.
Quick Past Continuous Tense study for SAT, IELTS, TESOL and other exams.
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How to use the past continuous tense in English
We use the past continuous tense to indicate that a longer action in the past was interrupted by a shorter action. This can be a real interruption, or just an interruption in time.
Here’s a few examples.
- I was watching TV when she called.
- When the phone rang, she was playing a video game.
- While we were having the picnic, it started to rain.
- What were you doing when you heard the news?
- I was listening to music, so I didn't hear the fire alarm.
Your English lesson about the Past Continuous Tense
Welcome to the Past Continuous tense lesson! In this lesson, we will cover many of the uses of the past continuous tense.
We use the past continuous tense to indicate that a longer action in the past was interrupted by a shorter action. We use the simple past to communicate the interruption. Remember this can be a real interruption or just an interruption in time. Let’s look at some examples.
I was watching TV when she called.
When the phone rang, she was playing a video game.
While we were having the picnic, it started to rain.
What were you doing when you heard the news?
I was listening to music, so I didn't hear the fire alarm.
You were not listening to me when I told you to turn the oven off.
Did someone steal John’s car while he was sleeping last night?
My mom was waiting for me when I got out of school.
The basic form of the past continuous tense looks like this.
[was/were + present participle]
Remember the following rule regarding the verb “to be”.
I – was
he/she/it – was
you/we/they – were
I was studying when she called.
Were you studying when she called?
I was not studying when she called.
Were they studying when she called?
You can see in the above examples that for the question form we put was/were before the subject. In the negative sentence, we use the word not in between was/were and the present participle (verb+ing).
You can also use a specific time as an interruption when you use the past continuous.
Last night at 6 PM, I was eating dinner.
At midnight, we were still sitting in a traffic jam.
Yesterday at this time, I was working.
What were you doing at 8:00 last night?
It is important to remember that in the simple past, a specific time is used to show when an action began or finished. In the past continuous tense, a specific time only interrupts the action.
Last night at 6 PM, I ate dinner.
This sentence expresses the idea that I started eating at 6 PM.
Last night at 6 PM, I was eating dinner.
This sentence in the past continuous tense tells us that I started eating before 6:00, and at 6:00 PM, I was in the process of eating dinner.
When you use the past continuous with two actions in the same sentence, it expresses the idea that both actions were happening at the same time. Here are a few examples.
I was studying while he was playing video games.
While Ellen was reading, Tim was watching television.
Were you listening while he was talking?
I wasn't paying attention while I was doing my homework, so I made several mistakes.
What were you doing while you were waiting?
In English, we often use a series of many actions happening at the same time to describe the atmosphere at a particular (specific) time in the past. Look at how this works in the following sentence:
When I walked into the classroom, several students were reading, some were talking on their phones, and others were sitting still and waiting for the teacher to arrive.
More past continuous tense exercises
The Past Continuous tense with words such as "always" or "constantly" expresses the idea that something irritating or bothersome repeatedly happened in the past. The concept is very similar to the expression "used to" but with negative emotion. Remember to put the words "always" or "constantly" between "be" and "verb+ing."
She was always coming to class late.
He was constantly working.
I didn't like them because they were always complaining.
It is important to remember that non-continuous verbs cannot be used in any continuous tenses. Also, certain non-continuous meanings for mixed verbs cannot be used in continuous tenses.
Verbs that cannot be used in continuous forms are usually verbs that you cannot see somebody doing. These verbs are rarely used in continuous forms. They are:
Abstract verbs: Be, want, cost, need, care, contain, owe, exist, etc.
Possession verbs: Own, belong, possess, etc.
Emotion Verbs: Like, love, hate, dislike, fear, envy, etc.
Jane was being at my house when you arrived. Not Correct
Jane was at my house when you arrived. Correct
It’s story time
Now that we’ve learned a lot about the past continuous tense, let’s see how this is used in a short story. As you read the following story, pay attention to how the past continuous is used.
We had a wonderful afternoon yesterday. My wife and I took a long walk in the park while our sons were in school. In the park, the birds were singing, the sun was shining, and there was a nice breeze cooling us down.
When my mother called me, we were sitting in the grass watching some children playing. A little girl was pushing a toy stroller with a doll in it, and a boy was kicking a soccer ball. I remembered when my son was that age he was always stealing other kids toys. The toys that other children were playing with were always more interesting than his toys.
Then, we bought a couple of hot dogs from a food cart. We were eating them when we bumped into my former professor. He was enjoying the weather before his afternoon classes. He must have been in a good mood because he was smiling brightly. It seems like he was always frowning when he was in the classroom, but he was happy today.
At about 2:00, we were starting to get tired. As soon as we were turning around to go home, I noticed a violinist was getting ready to play. Even though we were feeling tired, the violinist was playing beautifully, the sun was still shining, and the children were still playing.
Finally, as we were enjoying the music, we realized we were going to be late picking up our kids from school. So, at that moment, we were running to the car, making phone calls, and we were trying to think of any possible way that we could make it to the school before 3:30. It was a difficult ending to a beautiful afternoon.
That’s the end of the lesson on the past continuous tense.
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