Past Continuous Tense

Definition

Also called the past progressive, the past continuous tense is used to describe something that was in progress at a certain moment in the past.
It is called the past continuous because it uses the past tense of the auxiliary verb be (was or were) followed by the present participle of the main verb (which is used to describe an action that is or was continuously happening).

Structure

To form the past continuous, we order the sentence like this: subject + was/were + present participle of main verb.
For example:
  • “I was working.”
  • “She was reading a book.”
These sentences are both complete, but they give very little information. Often, the past continuous tense is used with additional information to convey a more complete story about what surrounded a continuous action or event.

Functions of the past continuous

There are a number of functions for which we use the past continuous tense in speech and writing. Let’s look at some examples of these various functions.

Before and after another action or event happened

  • “We were busy working on our assignment when our parents came home.”
  • “I was watching the lovely sunset as a flock of birds soared by.

Interrupted by another action or event

  • “He was having the most wonderful time on the beach when the weather suddenly turned awful.”
  • “As they were leaving, the phone rang.”

Before and after a certain time

  • Two years ago, I was working at a bar in New York City.”
  • “She was still up writing her thesis at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

For a certain length of time (whether specific or undefined)

  • “My head was throbbing.” (undefined length of time)
  • “You were eating that sandwich for an hour!” (specific length of time)

Repeatedly and frequently

  • “My parents were fighting all the time when I decided to leave.
  • “I was often worrying we wouldn’t be able to afford the wedding in the months leading up to it.”

A source of irritation

We can also indicate that things that happened repeatedly were a source of irritation by using the adverbs of frequency always or constantly, as in:
  • “My ex-husband was always leaving dirty dishes in the sink.”
  • “The old boss was constantly berating employees over silly issues.”

To show development, growth, or other change(s) over time

  • “Things were changing; there was no denying that.”
  • “I thought her condition was improving, but I guess not.”
  • “His memory was fading as he got older.”

Narrating a story or describing an atmosphere

  • “As they walked into the sunshine, the birds were singing and the breeze was softly blowing.”
  • “I was working in a New York City bar when all of this took place.”

Sentence types

All of the examples above have used the past continuous in positive sentences. As with the other tenses, we can use the past continuous in negative, imperative, and negative imperative sentences, with slight changes in structure as a result.

Negative sentences

To make a sentence negative in the past continuous, we simply add “not” between the auxiliary verb (was/were) and the present participle of the main verb. Not is often contracted with the auxiliary verb to make wasn’t/weren’t.
For example:
  • “I was not feeling well.”
  • “The kids weren’t sleeping when we got home.”
  • “She wasn’t working for two years after the baby was born.”

Interrogative sentences (questions)

To form an interrogative sentence (i.e., one that asks a question) in the past continuous tense, simply invert the subject with the verb.
For example:
  • Positive: “I was sleeping when you called.”
  • Interrogative: “Were you sleeping when I called?”
  • Positive: “They were watching a movie last night.”
  • Interrogative: “Were you watching a movie last night?”
  • Positive: “She was working on her thesis at the time.”
  • Interrogative: “Was she working on her thesis at the time?”

Negative interrogative sentences

Negative interrogative sentences also ask a question, but they imply that the speaker expects the answer to be (or believes the answer should be) “yes.” We form these by adding the word not after the subject. Was/were and not are very often contracted into wasn’t/weren’t, in which case they both come before the subject:
  • Was she not looking for a new place to live?”
  • Weren’t you watching a movie last night?”
  • Wasn’t he keeping track of the inventory?”
Quiz

1. Which of the following auxiliary verbs is used to form the past continuous tense?





2. What form of the main verb is used in the past continuous tense?





3. Which of the following sentences is in the past continuous tense?





4. Which of the following sentences is not in the past continuous tense?





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