Past Continuous Tense: How and When to Use It
Forming the Past Continuous Tense (with Tables)
Quick Reference Table: The Past Continuous Tense in All Forms
Ving → Present Participle
|+||(Past) To be [was/were] + VingI was writing last week.|
|?||(Past) To be [was/were] + subject + VingWere you writing last week?|
|–||(Past) To be [was/were] + not + VingI was not writing last week.|
The formula for writing in the past continuous is: past form of ‘to be’ [was, were] + present participle.
- 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.
In past continuous tense, we use present participle. See the structure of affirmative, negative and interrogative sentences.
Formula for affirmative sentences.
Subject + was/were + present participle + object
- He/She/It/I + was + present participle.
- They/We/You + were + present participle.
- They were doing useful work.
- He was driving to work yesterday.
Subject + was/were + not + present participle + object
- They were not doing useful work.
- He was not driving to work yesterday.
Interrogative Sentences (Questions)
Was/were + subject + present participle + object + ?
- Were they doing useful work?
- Was he driving to work yesterday?
Making It Negative
To make the past continuous tense in negative form, use this formula: [was, were] + not + present participle.
- 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.
- 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.
When describing a continuing state or action that happened in the past. This is usually used to give a reason or context for something.
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.
When describing something that was happening continuously in the past, but was interrupted by another action.
- 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.
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.
When describing actions happening at the same time in the past.
- 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?
When describing an atmosphere that existed in the past.
- 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.
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
Past Continuous Tense (Formula, Usage, Examples)
- as long as
Structure / Formula
Subject + was/were + Present participle (-ing) form
|Subject||Auxiliary verb||Present Participle(ing)||object|
To make the positive sentences, see the following formula.
Subject + was/were + Present participle (-ing) form
Examples of positive sentences
- He was traveling to Venice.
- She was eating a burger.
We add ‘not’ after auxiliary verb to make the sentence negative.
Subject + was/were + not + Present participle (-ing) form
Examples of negative sentences.
- He was not traveling to Venice.
- She was not eating a burger.
To make the question, auxiliary verb come at the start of the sentence and question mark at the end.
Was/were + Subject + Present participle (-ing) form + ?
Examples of question sentences.
- Was he traveling to Venice?
- Was she eating a burger?
|To express actions that were ongoing in past||He was playing tennis yesterday.|
|Two or more ongoing past actions at the same time.||He was watching movie while he was was eating chips.|
|Time expression||He was driving car at 05:00 pm yesterday.|
|To show an action that was in progress at some specific time in past.||We were having lunch at 02:00 pm yesterday.|
|To describe the ongoing action when another action started||I was driving car when she called me.|
|To describe two or more ongoing actions in the past.||He was drinking the tea while he was watching TV.|
|To describe the specific situation.||When I entered the house, the chef was cooking the meal and kids were watching cartoons.|
How to form the past continuous
We form the past continuous by using the simple past form of the verb ‘to be’ – was/were – and the main verb in the -ing form. For example,
“You were reading a book.”
To make questions we invert the auxiliary verb was/were and the subject:
“Were you reading a book?”
And to make negative forms we add ‘not’:
“You weren’t reading a book.”
Here is a table with a complete set of examples:
The short answer form is Yes, I was./No, I wasn’t.
So when do we use the past continuous? There are two main uses of this past tense:
1) Describing an action at a particular time in the past
At 4 p.m. I was reading a book.
This means that the action of reading started before 4 p.m. and continued at that time. Here are some other examples:
What were you doing at 12:30?
We were having lunch at 12:30.
Jana was still sitting in the classroom at 5 p.m.
The children were having tea at 4:30 p.m.
The traffic wasn’t moving at all at 8 a.m.
2) Comparing two finished actions in the past
When I arrived, the children were waiting for me.
This means that the children started to wait and the action continued when I arrived. Here are some other examples:
I was falling asleep when I heard a noise downstairs.
They were just going onto the motorway when they got a flat tire.
Was it raining when you went out?
Mrs Evans was making a phone call when we went into her office.
|1. He was drawing the old man out of the ditch.|
|2. He was writing an interesting story.|
|3. Was he living in this house?|
|4. I was not reciting the national anthem.|
|5. John was traveling to Venice.|
|6. She was driving the car.|
|7. They were eating mangoes.|
|8. The naughty boy was not teasing the old man.|
|9. Was the hero fighting with cannibals?|
|10. They were not signing the agreement.|
Examples of Past Continuous
- He was sitting on the bench when I met him. (positive)
- He was not sitting on the bench when I met him. (negative)
- Was he sitting on the bench when I met him? (question)
- They were coming towards the car. (positive)
- They weren’t coming towards the car. (negative)
- Were they coming towards the car? (question)
- He was waiting outside the home for the Pizza delivery boy. (positive)
- He wasn’t waiting outside the home for the Pizza Delivery boy. (negative)
- Was he waiting outside the home for the Pizza delivery boy? (question)
- You were doing something at that time. (positive)
- You weren’t doing anything at that time. (negative)
- What were you doing at that time? (question)
- I was sitting in that restaurant last night. (positive)
- I wasn’t sitting in that restaurant last night. (negative)
- Was I sitting in that restaurant last night? (question)
Usually, passive voice of past continuous tense is made when the subject is not known. For example,
- Mangoes were being eaten. (affirmative)
- Mangoes were not being eaten. (negative)
- Were mangoes being eaten? (question)
Structure of passive voice sentences,
Object + was/were + being + Verb(v3)
Past Continuous Tense Examples (20 Sentences)
- I was traveling to Venice last month.
- He was sitting idle.
- She fell down when she was running.
- I was reading my favorite novel last night.
- The mechanic was repairing my car last week.
- They were arranging a trip to hill station a few days ago.
- She was having dinner last night.
- I was answering the phone call when she entered the room.
- While I was going home, it started raining.
- What were you doing at 9 p.m. yesterday?.
- I was playing with the kids at 6 p.m. yesterday.
- He was enjoying a sound sleep a few hours ago.
- We were playing chess three hours ago.
- Tina was playing the guitar.
- Who was mopping the floor?
- He was not watching the movie with his friend.
- While I was driving to the market, my car suddenly stopped.
- While she was preparing for dinner, the doorbell rang.
- While Tom was playing football, his leg broke.
- While I was reading the book, I was drinking coffee.
Past Continuous Tense Paragraph Exercises
A young lady __________ (travel) on the train. A man __________ (stand) near to her. He __________ (chew) gum. A cute girl __________ (sit) opposite to her. The train was on its way to the destination in the morning. Some passengers __________ (sleep) on their seats when we __________ (have) breakfast.
A young lady was traveling on the train. A man was standing near to her. He was chewing gum. A cute girl was sitting opposite to her. The train was on its way to the destination in the morning. Some passengers were sleeping on their seats when we were having breakfast.
Complete the following sentence using the appropriate verbs to make it a past continuous sentence.
- They ____________ volleyball. (play)
- She ____________ too many chocolates at that time. (eat)
- Did she ask me, where ____ I ________ to the theatre? (go)
- That vault ______________ from any key at that moment. (not, open)
- He _______________ to hide behind the door.(try)
- You ____________ to Patola for a business meeting. (go)
- The person sitting by your side ________________ to anyone. (read)
- _____ you ________ outside the window? (look)
- The kidnappers ___________________ the minister’s daughter. (Kidnap)
- _____ everyone __________ from the financial crisis during that lockdown period? (suffer)
- They _____________ anything all the time. (do)
- I ______________ myself in the seat of the plane when the pilot announced something important. (belt)
- ______ she ____________ awkwardly in the hospital? (behave)
- ______ you ____________ the last day? (plan)
- The prisoners _______________ to escape from prison. (try)
- They were playing volleyball.
- She was eating too many chocolates at that time.
- Did she ask me, where was I going to the theatre?
- That vault was not opening from any key at that moment.
- He was trying to hide behind the door.
- You were going to Patola for a business meeting.
- What were you reading in the library?
- were you looking outside the window?
- The kidnappers were kidnapping the minister’s daughter.
- was everyone suffering from the financial crisis during that lockdown period?
- They were doing anything all the time.
- I was belting myself in the seat of the plane when the pilot announced something important.
- was she behave awkwardly in the hospital?
- were you planning the last day?
- The prisoners were trying to escape from prison.