Past continuous tense
What time is it now? Check the time on your computer screen or phone. What were you doing at this time yesterday? Were you watching a movie? Playing a video game? Sleeping? Eating an enormous cheeseburger? Whatever you were doing, I hope you were enjoying it!
In this Central School of English blog post I’m going to take a look at the past continuous tense. It’s a wonderful tense, a personal favourite of mine. And it’s not too complicated. It’s not rocket science. So from this cold, December, Monday afternoon in Dublin to wherever you are in the world…ladies and gentlemen, I give you …the past continuous tense!
Past Continuous - Form
If you were paying attention, in the opening paragraph there are several examples of the past continuous tense.
What were you doing at this time yesterday?
I hope you were enjoying it!
To form the past continuous tense we use the auxiliary verb to be + present participle.
Past Continuous - Positive Sentences
We form the past continuous by using was/were + present participle
I was going
You were going
He was going
She was going
It was going
We were going
You were going
They were going
Past Continuous - Negative Sentences
To form negative sentences with the past continuous we use was/were + not + present participle
I wasn’t going
You weren’t going
He wasn’t going
She wasn’t going
It wasn’t going
We weren’t going
You weren’t going
They weren’t going
Past Continuous - Questions
To form questions with the past continuous we use was/were + subject + present participle
Was I going?
Were you going?
Was he going?
Was she going?
Was it going?
Were we going?
Were you going?
Were they going?
Past Continuous - Use
Why do we use the continuous form instead of the past simple?
Because we are refering an action that was in progress at a specific past time! If I ask you:
What did you do yesterday?
You might reply with something like:
I got up early, went for a run then had a big breakfast. In the afternoon I went shopping. Later I had dinner, watched a movie and went to bed.
Here, we are using the past simple to talk about our day.
However, if we want to know someone’s actions at a particular or specific time yesterday we would ask something like:
What were you doing at 10am yesterday?
Were you sleeping at midnight last night?
Imagine a police officer investigating a crime. She needs to know people’s actions at very specific times. So she would ask questions in the past continuous tense! Yes, you can learn grammar from the police! But please, don’t get arrested just to practice your grammar.
Here are some more examples of actions in progress at a specific point in the past.
I was walking at 6pm yesterday
They were working at 9am
He was swimming at lunchtime
She was reading at 8 o clock
Sometimes we don’t say a specific time but state another action.
Look at these examples:
I was having a shower when the phone rang.
It was raining when I woke up this morning.
I was eating a burrito when the aliens landed.
In each of the examples above there are two actions. One of the actions is in progress (I was eating a burrito). The other action happened while the first action was in progress (when the aliens landed). We sometimes call the second action an’interrupting action’ as it interrupts the first action.
If two actions are in progress at the same time, we can use the present continuous for both actions.
Look at these examples:<
I was cooking while she was watching a movie.
Mary was chopping down a tree while Jim was digging a hole.
Pete was surfing the waves while Johnny was surfing the internet.
In these examples there is no ‘interrupting action’. Both actions are in progress at the same time. Notice that we generally use the linking word while in this type of sentence.
Past Continuous as a Narrative Tense
We often use the past continuous when we tell stories or anecdotes. It creates a feeling of expectation. A ‘What’s going to happen???’ feeling.
For example, imagine you lived in London ten years ago and you saw a bank robbery. This might be an exciting story that you often tell people. The story could begin like this:
About ten years ago I was living in London. I was working in a cafe, so I had to get up really early in the morning. One morning I was walking to work. The streets were empty. Suddenly, I saw three men run out of a buidling. They were armed. They jumped into a car that pulled away at great speed.
The use of the present continuous at the beginning of a story ‘sets the scene’. It creates a feeling of the world in motion in which anything can happen.
To get arrested: to be taken away by the police
Armed: To have a weapon, usually a gun
Anecdote: A short, often funny story, about something someone has done
Expectation: The feeling that good things will happen in the future
Bank robbery: The crime of stealing money from a bank
At great speed: Quickly, fast
To pull away: A vehicle starts moving Example: She waved at him from the bus as it pulled away.
It’s not rocket science: we use this idiom to suggest that a task or concept is not very difficult to do or understand
Example: Learning how to use a new mobile phone is not rocket science.