Past continuous tense

Functions of the Past continuous

The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and is still going on at the time of speaking. In other words, it expresses an unfinished or incomplete action in the past.

It is used:

  • Often, to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. "The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly. She was looking for her baby, and she didn't notice the hunter who was watching her through his binoculars. When the shot rang out, she was running towards the river..."
  • to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action, e.g. "I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang."
  • to express a change of mind: e.g. "I was going to spend the day at the beach but I've decided to get my homework done instead."
  • with 'wonder', to make a very polite request: e.g. "I was wondering if you could baby-sit for me tonight."
  • They were waiting for the bus when the accident happened.
  • Caroline was skiing when she broke her leg.
  • When we arrived he was having a bath.
  • When the fire started I was watching television.

Note: with verbs not normally used in the continuous form, the simple past is used.

Forming the Past continuous

The past continuous of any verb is composed of two parts : the past tense of the verb "to be" (was/were), and the base of the main verb +ing.

Subject was/were base + ing
They were watching
She was reading
She wasn't reading
Was she reading?
Interrogative negative
Wasn't she reading?
To play, past continuous
Affirmative Negative Interrogative
I was playing I was not playing Was I playing?
You were playing You were not playing Were you playing?
He was playing He wasn't playing Was he playing?
We were playing We weren't playing Were we playing?
They were playing They weren't playing Were they playing?