What is the past continuous?
The past continuous (or past progressive) is one of the English verb tenses.
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Use & examples
We use the past continuous tense to describe:
(1) Temporary actions in the past
It describes a temporary action that was taking place over a period of time in the past. The action does not continue to the present. It can also show two actions happening at the same time in the past.
- I was watching television yesterday evening.
- I was talking on the phone while my mum was cooking dinner.
(2) Gives background information around a specific time in the past
When one past action happened in the middle of another past action, we can use the past continuous and past simple together.
⟩ The past continuous is used for temporary actions or situations that were already happening.
⟩ The past simple describes something that happens in the middle of (or interrupts) the longer background action.
- She was driving the car when the phone rang.
(3) Repeated actions
The past continuous can also emphasise repeated actions in the past, and often with expressions like 'always', 'continually', 'forever'.
- She was always complaining about the weather.
- They were continually borrowing money from his parents.
How do you write and pronounce the present continuous?
Form: Key points
- Use the auxiliary verb 'be' (was/were) + main verb (-ing).
- Contractions are commonly used with the negative past continuous tense.
Here are examples of the affirmative (positive) form, negative form and question form using the verb 'live'.
We don't use contractions between the subject and the auxiliary verb in the affirmative. For example, 'You were' cannot be contracted for the past continuous. (This is only possible with the present continuous.)
Contractions can only be used in the negative form between the auxiliary verb and 'not'.
- was not = wasn't
- were not = weren't
- Yes, I was. / No, I wasn't.
- Yes, you were. / No, you weren't.
We commonly use contractions for the negative past continuous tense (e.g. 'I wasn't meeting friends' or 'He wasn't working'), especially when speaking English.
Spelling exceptions for verbs
Sometimes we need to remove a letter, and other times we need to add another letter. Here are the exceptions:
1) One 'e' at the end of a verb
Remove the final 'e' and add 'ing'.
[live] I was living in Germany.
[save] I was saving money for a new car.
* Verbs ending in 'ee'
These follow the normal rules.
[see] He was seeing his friends.
2) Verb ends with consonant + one stressed vowel + one consonant
Double the final consonant and add 'ing'.
[stop] I was stopping the car.
[swim] We were swimming in the sea.
* Verbs ending with an unstressed vowel
These follow the normal rules, and the last consonant is not doubled.
[develop] They were developing a new idea at the company.
3) Verb ends in 'l' (British English)
Double the final consonant and add 'ing'.
[travel] I was travelling with friends.
4) Verb ends with 'ie'
Change 'ie' to 'y' and add 'ing'.
[lie] She was lying to the teacher.
5) Verb ends with 'ic'
Add 'k' before 'ing'.
[panic] He was panicking about the exam.
Quiz 1: Giving background information around a specific time in the past
What was happening when the football started?
[Topic: Free time]
Type the verbs in the past continuous tense and use the affirmative, negative or question form.
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- The guys (were sitting)[sit] on the sofa.
- (Were) the children (studying)[study] in their bedroom? Yes, they (were).
- The children (weren't sleeping, were not sleeping)[sleep].
- My uncle (was eating)[eat] a pizza.
- (Was) he (talking)[talk] about his new girlfriend? No, he (wasn't, was not).
- He (was not drinking, wasn't drinking)[drink] any of the beer.
- Our neighbours (were washing)[wash] their car and their son (was playing)[play] in the garden.
- (Were) you (working)[work] on your computer? No, I (wasn't, was not).
- I (was writing)[write] text messages to my friends.
- We (weren't discussing, were not discussing)[discuss] the game!