I was singing
The past continuous tense is an important tense in English. We use it to say what we were in the
middle of doing at a particular moment in the past.
In this lesson we look at the structure and the use of the past continuous tense, followed by a quiz to
check your understanding:
How do we make the Past Continuous Tense?
The structure of the past continuous tense is:
For negative sentences in the past continuous tense, we insert not between the auxiliary verb and main
verb. For question sentences, we exchange the subject and auxiliary verb. Look at these example
sentences with the past continuous tense:
The spelling rules for adding ing to make the past continuous tense are the same as
for the present continuous tense.
How do we use the Past Continuous Tense?
The past continuous tense expresses action at a particular moment in the past. The action started
before that moment but has not finished at that moment. For example, yesterday I watched a film on
TV. The film started at 7pm and finished at 9pm.
When we use the past continuous tense, our listener usually knows or understands what time we are
talking about. Look at these examples:
- I was working at 10pm last night.
- They were not playing football at 9am this morning.
- What were you doing at 10pm last night?
- What were you doing when he arrived?
- She was cooking when I telephoned her.
- We were having dinner when it started to rain.
- Ram went home early because it was snowing.
We often use the past continuous tense to "set the scene" in stories. We use it to describe the
background situation at the moment when the action begins. Often, the story starts with the past
continuous tense and then moves into the simple past tense. Here is an example:
" James Bond was driving through town. It was raining. The wind was blowing hard. Nobody was
walking in the streets. Suddenly, Bond saw the killer in a telephone box..."
Past Continuous Tense + Simple Past Tense
We often use the past continuous tense with the simple past tense. We use the past continuous tense to
express a long action. And we use the simple past tense to express a short action that happens in the
middle of the long action. We can join the two ideas with when or while.
In the following example, we have two actions:
- long action (watching TV), expressed with past continuous tense
- short action (telephoned), expressed with simple past tense
We can join these two actions with when:
- I was watching TV when you telephoned.
- when + short action (simple past tense)
- while + long action (past continuous tense)
Notice that the long action and short action are relative.
- "Watching TV" took a few hours. "Telephoned" took a few seconds.
- "Walking past the car" took a few seconds. "Exploded" took a few milliseconds.