Past Continuous Tense: How and When to Use It

past continous tense on a blackboard

The following article focuses on forming and using the past continuous tense. For resources on all verb tenses, visit our main verb tenses page.

Forming the Past Continuous Tense (with Tables)

Quick Reference Table: The Past Continuous Tense in All Forms

KEY

Ving → Present Participle

Forms Verbs
+ (Past) To be [was/were] + Ving

I was writing last week.

? (Past) To be [was/were] + subject + Ving

Were you writing last week?

(Past) To be [was/were] + not + Ving

I was not writing last week.

The formula for writing in the past continuous is: past form of ‘to be’ [was, were] + present participle.

Examples:

  • I was writing in my journal when the doorbell rang.
  • She was walking on the sidewalk when the man stepped in front of her.
  • We were celebrating when we heard the fireworks.
  • John was yelling at her when his mother interrupted.

Making It Negative

To make the past continuous tense in negative form, use this formula: [was, were] + not + present participle.

Examples:

  • I wasn’t working last week.
  • They weren’t making an effort.
  • I wasn’t paying attention when I was cutting vegetables.
  • We weren’t thinking when we decided to steal the bag.

Asking a Question

When asking a question in the past continuous tense, use the formula: [was, were] + subject + present participle.

Examples:

  • Was he walking when he twisted his ankle?
  • What were you doing last night?
  • Were you wearing your red dress last night?

When To Use the Past Continuous Tense

The past continuous is easy to identify in a sentence but can be confusing for ESL speakers when trying to determine when to apply it. The tense has a range of functions that we’ll break down in this section.

Use #1

When describing a continuing state or action that happened in the past. This is usually used to give a reason or context for something.

Examples:

Where was he/she? Or Where were they?

  • He was visiting his family in Mexico.
  • I think she was taking her kids to school that morning.
  • They were eating dinner at Chili’s.

How did you meet?

  • We were vacationing in Paris at the same time.
  • We met when I was shopping with my mom.
  • I was finishing my medical degree, and she was finishing her masters in business.

Use #2

When describing something that was happening continuously in the past, but was interrupted by another action.

Examples:

  • The audience was laughing when the comedian fell off the stage.
  • We were working in the garden when we heard the gunshots.
  • She was reading in her room when she heard a knock at the door.

Use #3

When describing something that was happening at a specific time.

This flips the format of Use #2 and makes the past continuous the interrupter in the sentence.

  • At noon, I was waiting in my car.
  • Around 2 p.m., he was playing with his daughter.
  • This time yesterday, I was working on a puzzle with my grandson.

Use #4

When describing actions happening at the same time in the past.

Examples:

  • I was cutting vegetables while he was grilling the steaks.
  • Joey was playing on his phone while Timmy was running around in circles.
  • What were you doing when your brother was sneaking into the house?

Use #5

When describing an atmosphere that existed in the past.

Examples:

  • The moon was glowing brightly that night.
  • The river was flowing rapidly last spring.
  • When I walked into the restaurant, waiters were walking around aimlessly, and the hostess was talking on the phone.

Use #6

When expressing irritation. Used with “always” or “constantly”

  • She was always talking on her phone during class.
  • He was constantly walking through the room during our meeting.
  • They were always stealing from the convenience store.

When Not To Use It

It may seem obvious, but one of the biggest pitfalls of using the past continuous tense is using it with a non-continuous verb.

  • I was needing to go to the store when my daughter ran inside screaming about the cut on her finger. – Incorrect
    • I needed to go to the store when my daughter ran inside screaming about the cut on her finger. – Correct

Now you know how to use the past continuous tense in English!

By the way, improve your IELTS score with Magoosh!

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