The past continuous is an English verb tense used for continuous actions in the past. This lesson shows you how to use it correctly. You can start with the structure:
Past Continuous Structure
Subject + Was/Were + Verb + ING
Past Continuous Examples:
- I was sleeping.
- They were dancing.
Past Continuous Uses
Past continuous is used to show an action that was continuing in the past until another action interrupted it. The continuing action is past continuous and the interrupting action is simple past. Here is an example:
- I was sleeping when you called me.
In this example, the action of sleeping was continuing over time until the telephone call interrupted the sleeping. Here are some more examples:
- She was playing in the park when it started to rain.
- While they were talking, the pizza arrived.
- The car crashed when we were walking across the street.
An expression of time can be used as an interruption as well.
- We were eating dinner at 4 o’clock.
- At 6 o’clock we were still studying for our test.
Here are some more uses::
Past continuous is used to show two actions happening at the same time in the past, like in these examples:
- I was reading and he was watching TV.
- While she was sleeping, Jack was doing his homework.
Notice the word “while” is often used in these situations:
- While I was cleaning, she was watching television.
- He was talking while she was studying.
Repetition in the Past
Past Continuous can also be used to show actions that happened many times in the past.
- He was always breaking something when he was a child.
- I couldn’t enjoy the movie because the people behind me were talking the whole time.
Here are some more tips for using the past continuous:
Past continuous can often be used in the same places as simple past.
- Yesterday I read a book.
- Yesterday I was reading a book.
Often, it is determined by the question.
- What were you doing yesterday? I was reading.
- What did you do yesterday? I read.
Remember that, just like present continuous, you cannot use non-continuous verbs in continuous tenses.
- I was liking pizza when I was young.
- I liked pizza when I was young.
- I was wanting to eat pizza yesterday.
- I wanted to eat pizza yesterday.
Are you ready to check your understanding of the past continuous? Try these tests:
And here is a listening exercise you can use to practice your listening and see the past continuous in action: