Verb Tenses: Past Continuous

PAST CONTINOUS

Past continuous - form

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



Affirmative
She was reading
Negative
She wasn't reading
Interrogative
Was she reading?
Interrogative negative
Wasn't she reading?

Example: 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, she, it was playing

She wasn't playing

Was she playing?

We were playing

We weren't playing

Were we playing?

You were playing

You weren't playing

Were you playing?

They were playing

They weren't playing

Were they playing?

 

Past continuous, function

The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and was 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 go on an excursion instead."

  • with 'wonder', to make a very polite request: e.g. "I was wondering if you could baby-sit for me tonight."

More examples

  • 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. See list in Present continuous