The past continuous tense is commonly used in English to talk about actions or events that were ongoing at a time before now. This includes one action that was interrupted by another or two actions that were happening at the same time in the past. In this post, we will explore the correct uses of the past continuous and explain how you can avoid common mistakes with it. Check out the interactive quiz at the end to test your knowledge!
The past continuous refers to an action (or event) that started before now and was ongoing when something else happened – e.g. I was reading when you called. The formula is: subject + was/were + verb with ‘-ing’. Signal words for this tense include when and while.
We can use the past continuous tense to mention an action that was happening in the past, but was then interrupted by something. Usually, the action that was happening was longer than the interrupting event. This could be a real event or just a time interruption.
We were eating lunch in the canteen when we felt the building shake. It was an earthquake!
John was playing tennis, but he injured his arm and couldn’t play on.
I was studying through the night, and I fell asleep at my computer.
One of the most common uses of the past continuous tense is to describe an action that continued for an amount of time, without there necessarily being an end to the action.
My teeth were aching all morning.
The kids were playing in the park.
I was feeling hungry all day because I skipped breakfast.
A classic usage of the past continuous tense is to set the scene or atmosphere at the beginning of a story. This could be a real-life anecdote or it could be found in a book or fairytale.
Once upon a time, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves were talking in the forest.
The crowd was waiting in anticipation as the teams entered the stadium.
People in the restaurant were talking loudly as we waited for our meal.
We can also use the past continuous tense to describe two actions happening at the same time. We do this by stating the two events, and connecting them with the word ‘while’. ‘While’ can go in between the clauses, or at the start of the sentence. Remember to use the correct form of the auxiliary verb in each case!
The kids were watching TV while their mother was cooking.
While we were waiting for the train, we were having a coffee on the platform.
The acrobat was juggling while he was riding a unicycle.
To describe how something was happening repeatedly in the past, we can use the past continuous together with the word ‘always’. Most often, ‘always’ is placed in between the auxiliary verb and the main verb.
Jack and Jill were always talking with each other on the bus to school.
When I was a kid, I was always asking my mother to buy me sweets.
To form the past continuous, we place the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ after the subject in the past simple form (was/were). After this comes the verb with the ‘-ing’ ending.
Formula = Subject + was/were + verb with ‘-ing’
Rachel was playing the guitar.
Jack and Jill were walking to school.
There can be affirmative (positive), negative, and interrogative (questioning) functions for all the uses of the past continuous tense. We will look at these below.
How to conjugate verbs in the past continuous tense in the affirmative:
|Affirmative||‘to love’||‘to make’||‘to speak’||‘to see’|
|1st person singular||I was loving||I was making||I was speaking||I was seeing|
|2nd person singular||You were loving||You were making||You were speaking||You were seeing|
|3rd person singular||He/she/it was loving||He/she/it was making||He/she/it was speaking||He/she/it was seeing|
|1st person plural||We were loving||We were making||We were speaking||We were seeing|
|2nd person plural||You were loving||You were making||You were speaking||You were seeing|
|3rd person plural||They were loving||They were making||They were speaking||They were seeing|
To form the negative in the past continuous, we place ‘not’ after ‘was/were’.
Formula = Subject + was/were + not + verb with ‘-ing’
John wasn’t being very polite at the wedding!
We weren’t expecting to see our friend at the shopping centre.
How to conjugate verbs in the past continuous tense in the negative:
|Negative||‘to love’||‘to make’||‘to speak’||‘to see’|
|1st person singular||I was not loving||I was not making||I was not speaking||I was not seeing|
|2nd person singular||You were not loving||You were not making||You were not speaking||You were not seeing|
|3rd person singular||He/she/it was not loving||He/she/it was not making||He/she/it was not speaking||He/she/it was not seeing|
|1st person plural||We were not loving||We were not making||We were not speaking||We were not seeing|
|2nd person plural||You were not loving||You were not making||You were not speaking||You were not seeing|
|3rd person plural||They were not loving||They were not making||They were not speaking||They were not seeing|
To form the interrogative (a question), simply flip the subject with ‘was/were’.
Formula = Was/were + subject + verb with ‘-ing’
Was Jack planning to attend the meeting this morning?
Were you thinking of eating out tonight?
To form an interrogative that is negative, place ‘not’ after the subject. You can also use contracted forms (‘wasn’t’ or ‘weren’t’), which go before the subject.
Were you not cheering at the end of the match?
Wasn’t it raining when we left home this evening?
How to conjugate verbs in the past continuous tense in the interrogative:
|Interrogative||‘to love’||‘to make’||‘to speak’||‘to see’|
|1st person singular||Was I loving||Was I making||Was I speaking||Was I seeing|
|2nd person singular||Were you loving||Were you making||Were you speaking||Were you seeing|
|3rd person singular||Was he/she/it loving||Was he/she/it making||Was he/she/it speaking||Was he/she/it seeing|
|1st person plural||Were we loving||Were we making||Were we speaking||Were we seeing|
|2nd person plural||Were you loving||Were you making||Were you speaking||Were you seeing|
|3rd person plural||Were they loving||Were they making||Were they speaking||Were they seeing|
The past continuous is not usually used with stative verbs, which are verbs of thinking, feeling, and senses (e.g. ‘to understand’, ‘to believe’). Some learners try to form the past continuous with these verbs, but it sounds unnatural. It is more often correct to use the past simple or present simple tense with this class of verbs.
I was thinking that you were ill, so I marked you absent. (incorrect)
I thought that you were ill, so I marked you absent. (correct)
It is important to note that the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ changes form depending on the subject of the sentence. It is a common mistake to use the incorrect form of the auxiliary verb when forming the past continuous tense.
The correct forms are:
Was = 1st person singular, 3rd person singular
Were = 2nd person singular, 1st person plural, 2nd person singular, 1st person plural, 2nd person plural, 3rd person plural
We was just talking about you before you arrived. (incorrect)
We were just talking about you before you arrived. (correct)
Another mistake with the auxiliary verb is to leave it out altogether. It is important to use ‘to be’ in the correct position in order to correctly form the past continuous tense. This mistake is especially common when forming negative sentences, when learners forget to use ‘not’.
John __ not at work this morning (incorrect)
John wasn’t at work this morning. (correct)
There are many instances where learners might feel that the past continuous is the go-to option for forming a sentence about the past. However, it is often the case that the past simple is better.
For example, when talking about events that have been completed at a specific time in the past, learners sometimes use the past continuous tense, when the past simple is the correct choice.
I was finding out about the party from Dave. (incorrect)
I found out about the party from Dave. (correct)
It is tempting to think that since the past continuous is a past tense, it is necessary to use the past form of the verb. However, for the past continuous, we actually use the continuous form (‘-ing’ ending).
Weren’t you lived somewhere else until recently? (incorrect)
Weren’t you living somewhere else until recently? (correct)
Test your understanding of the past continuous with these exercises. Select the correct answer for each of the questions and get your score at the end of the quiz. You can also share your result via social media and challenge your friends to try it too!