Past continuous Learn English

This post looks at the past continuous and asks;

What is the past continuous?

When is the past continuous used?

At the end are 5 advanced-level uses of the past continuous for more confident learners.

 The past continuous uses the past of the verb ‘be’ and the infinitive + ‘ing’

 Subject         was/were     infinitive + ‘ing’  

I                       was                 playing           tennis

You                 were                playing           tennis

He/she/it         was                 playing           tennis

We/they         were                playing           tennis


Subject         was/were not wasn’t/weren’t                   infinitive + ‘ing’                                     


I                      wasn’t       (was not)                                   playing

 You                weren’t     (were not)                                  playing          

He/she/it         wasn’t       (was not)                                   playing          

We/they          weren’t      (were not)                                 playing          


We use the past continuous to talk about something that happened that happens over a point in time.

We often use the past continuous with times or dates.

Last week …….

Ten years ago …..

This morning at 5 am ……

All yesterday afternoon …..

Between 1pm and 2 pm …..

 We use the past continuous to talk or write about something that happened during a time point.

This time five years ago, we were living in France.

Last Friday evening at seven, he was driving to the airport. 

We can use the past continuous to describe something we did over a time period.

 I was practising the piano from ten until midday yesterday.

 We can use the past continuous to describe two continuous actions.

While I was cooking the dinner, my husband was making a salad.

Also possible,

I was cooking the dinner while my husband was making a salad.

 The past continuous can be used with the past simple if an action is interrupted by another action.

‘While’ and ‘when’ are often used.

While I was having a bath, the phone rang.

The phone rang while I was having a bath.

When I was driving to work my car broke down.

My car broke down when I was driving to work.

 It is possible to use ‘as’ instead of ‘while’ or ‘when’ although this is found more in formal, written or literary English.

‘As the sun was setting the trees threw long shadows across garden.’


Some advanced level uses of the past continuous.

Demanding an explanation.

The past continuous can be used to demand an explanation from someone for something they are doing. Time is sometimes but not usually mentioned as it is obvious to both parties.

Parent:   What were you doing with that ball? You’re              supposed to be doing your homework.

Child:              I was just tiding it away!


Often used in colloquial conversations to describe a previous intention to do something that has now been abandoned.

I was going to go for a run but it’s snowing now.

She was going to meet friends but her car won’t start.

Change of plans.

This usage is similar to the previous but it suggests that the person to whom the speaker is talking is somehow responsible for the changed plans and the speaker is unhappy.

There is an emphasis on the auxiliary or the main verb reinforcing a sense of annoyance on the part of the speaker.

I WAS hoping to go cycling but you have broken my bike!

I was PLANNING to go to have an early night but now you want me to collect you after the party!

 Was being.

Consider the two statements.

  1. ‘I was a policeman’ or ‘I used to be a policeman’.
  2. ‘I was being a policeman’.

The second statement tells us that the speaker was not in fact a policeman rather that he was pretending to be one.

 It is possible to use the past continuous to make a request or a suggestion.

It is often considered a more polite form particularly with colleagues or strangers.

‘I was wondering if you mind my shutting the window?’

‘I was thinking of going out for a meal tonight?’ This is often used to ‘sound out’ the other person.

‘I was wondering if you would like to join me’.

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