How To Use The PAST CONTINUOUS Tense In English With ALL Its Meanings

How To Use The PAST CONTINUOUS Tense In English With ALL Its Meanings

How many ways can I use the Past Continuous tense? 

Past Continuous verbsHello I'm Jane at DailyStep English and in this lesson I'm going to teach you ALL 10 ways to use the Past Continuous tense in English. This verb tense is also called the Past Progressive.

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So let's learn how to use the Past Continuous:




The Past Continuous Verb Tense 

By Jane Lawson at DailyStep.com

I use both the Past Continuous and the Past Progressive names for this tense in this DailyStep English lesson. This will help you to remember that they are both the same thing. 

If you want to learn how to form the Past Continuous, please click here.

As with many English verb tenses, you learn the Past Progressive at both lower and more advanced levels of English. Please check that you know all of these ways to use this English verb tense. The more advanced uses are lower down in this lesson.

First, and very important, please remember that the Past Continuous is only used as a past tense when we refer to Finished Past Time. You need to understand the difference between Finished and Unfinished Past Time, so if you missed my free DailyStep English Grammar lesson on this, you can find it here.

So, let's take a look at all the different ways we can use the Past Continuous in English:

1.  We use the Past Continuous for longer actions that are interrupted by a shorter action or by a point in time. 

In this DailyStep English Timeline, the longer action is represented by the red curve, and the shorter action or point in time is represented by the small cross.

Past Continuous tense for interrupted actions in finished past time
Examples: 
 
I found it while I was walking on the beach.

What were you doing when the telephone rang?
I was eating dinner when the telephone rang. (note: If I say “What did you do when the telephone rang?”, the answer would be “I answered the phone.” - or, if the phone call was unwelcome,  “I dropped the call”.)

You were not listening when he gave you the directions.
Yes, I was.
No, I don’t think you were, because we are now lost. (note: in the short answers here, we just use the auxiliary verbs was and were rather than repeating the whole verb phrase “I was listening" and “I don’t think you were listening.”)

Someone stole my bag while I was reading a book on the train. (note: here, reading is the longer action that was interrupted by my bag being stolen.)

At ten o’clock last night, I was still working. (note: here, the interruption is a specific time, ten o’clock.)

2. We use the Past Continuous for parallel actions in finished past time.

In other words, we use it when we talk about actions that happened at the same time and that extended for periods of time rather than occurring at points in time.

In this DailyStep English Timeline, you can see parallel actions represented by the two red curves.

Past Continuous for parallel actions.

Examples:
He was playing the guitar and I was singing.

They didn’t hear the doorbell because they were preparing dinner, listening to loud music and dancing. (note: we don't repeat the auxiliary verb “were”. So we do not say, “They were preparing dinner, were listening to loud music and were dancing.” )

What were you doing while he was giving that boring speech?
I was trying not to yawn most of the time, and the rest of the time I was scrolling on my phone and messaging my friends. 

At ten o’clock last night, I was still working. At ten thirty, I stopped working, switched off my computer and went home. (note: we use the Past Simple tense here to indicate chronological order. So, first, I stopped working, second I switched off my computer and third, I went home. You can learn more about this here.)


We often use the Past Continuous in this way to describe the mood or atmosphere in a film or in a real situation. Take a look at this example:

The restaurant was busy. The waiters were rushing around serving people, customers were ordering food and drinks and outside it was raining heavily.

 

3. We use the Past Continuous to show that something continued for some time.

In this DailyStep English Timeline, the red curve represents the past situation that continued for some time.

Past Continuous action that continued for some time


Examples:
After the earthquake, all the dogs were barking and the people were shouting to each other.

It was raining all day yesterday. (note: we can also say "It rained all day yesterday", but if we use the Past Continuous "It was raining...", we emphasise that the rainfall continued for a long time.)

What were you doing last Saturday? (note: we ask the question like this if we want to know a full account of last Saturday’s activities. So, for example a police detective would ask “What were you doing on Saturday?” instead of saying “What did you do on Saturday?”)


4.
 We use the Past Progressive to show that something happened repeatedly.

In this DailyStep English Timeline, the red crosses represent repeated actions.

Past Continuous for actions that were repeated
It is also correct to use the Past Simple for repeated actions but we use the Past Continuous in this way when we want to emphasise the fact that something was repeated. We usually use it with a time reference such as every day, most days, for years and so on.

Examples:
I was visiting her for several years.
(note: it is also correct to say “I visited her for several years”, but we use the Past Continuous to emphasis that I visited her again and again. Also,  as we use the Past Continuous tense here, we know that I am referring to Finished Past Time, so we know that I no longer visit her every day.)

To prepare for the concert, I was practising every evening for at least 2 hours. (note: again, we could use the Past Simple and say “I practised..” but the Past Continuous “I was practising…” emphasises the fact that it was repeated.)

I was trying to call you yesterday. (note: here, the speaker implies that there was more than one attempt to call. Sometimes, we might use this structure to imply that we made more effort to reach someone, even if in fact we only tried once! This is an example of how the choice of verb tense can subtly affect the meaning of what we say.)


It is not correct to use the Past Continuous in this way if we say
how many times the repeated action happened. So we can not say:

I was visiting her three times.

but we can say 

I was visiting her three times a week.

because “three times a week” refers to how often I visited her, not how many times in total I visited her.

 

5. We use the Past Continuous in Reported Speech to report what someone originally said in the Present Continuous.                            

Examples:
He said he was leaving. (note: his actual words here were "I am leaving.")

She told me she was starting a new job. (note: her actual words here in direct speech were "I am starting a new job.")

He asked me how I was planning to do it. (note: his actual words here were "How are you planning to do it?")


You can learn more about the rules of Reported Speech in another free DailyStep English Grammar Lesson.

Now, let's look at some more advanced ways to use the Past Progressive in English. These uses become more advanced as you move down through the lesson.


6. We use the Past Continuous 
with ALWAYS when we want to express annoyance or irritation.

Examples: 
He was always forgetting to charge his phone. The battery was always running out in the middle of a call. But his new phone has much better battery life. (note: by choosing to use ALWAYS with the Past Continuous, “He was always forgetting…” and “The battery was always running out”, we indicate that this happened repeatedly and that it was annoying.)

Oh yes I remember that student. He was always arriving late to class. 


We can use the Present Continuous tense with ALWAYS to express annoyance about a current situation. You can learn more about that here.

7. We sometimes use the Past Progressive after IT'S TIME and IT'S HIGH TIME if we want to express urgency in a polite or diplomatic way.

Examples: 
It's time we were leaving. The traffic will be very heavy and we don’t want to be late. (note: this means "We should leave now". If I say "It is time to leave" this does not express urgency. If I use the Past Simple here, and say “It’s time we left.”, then we express greater urgency. So by choosing the Past Continuous here, I express slight urgency - and therefore it is more diplomatic.)

It's high time I was watering those plants - they are all so dry.  (note: the expression "It's high time..." expresses even more urgency than “It’s time…" , so we know that the plants must be very dry, even before I say in the second sentence that they are all so dry.)


8. We use the Past Continuous 
in Second Conditional Clauses
  when we are referring to UNREAL PRESENT OR FUTURE. 


Examples:
It’s a shame they are living so far away for the next couple of months. If they were living nearer to us, we would see them a lot more often.  (note: the reality here is that they are not living nearer to us, but the conditional clause"If they were living nearer to us" refers to a hypothetical, unreal situation in the present.) 

In the sentence above, we use the Present Continuous, “they are living” to indicate that this is a temporary situation. For a long term or permanent situation, we would use the Present Simple, “It’s a shame they live so far away.” You can learn more about the difference between these two tenses here and here.

We will be in Paris next month. If we were spending more time there, we would visit you but we will only be there for 2 days. (note: the reality is that we will not have enough time to visit you. In the conditional clause "If we were spending more time there", the Past Continuous verb, "were spending", refers to a time in the future - in other words, the time next month when we will be in Paris.)

If the sun was shining, I would go for a swim. (note: we should use the subjunctive form "If the sun were shining..." instead of the Past Continuous "If the sun was shining...". The subjunctive form is correct here, but in informal conversation, it is more common to use  the Past Continuous form, “If the sun was shining.”)

Imagine if you were living in a desert. How would you survive? (note: here, the second conditional idea is split across 2 sentences. We could express this as one sentence with a conditional clause. In this case, we would say: "If you were living in a desert, how would you survive?" )

You can learn more about Second Conditional Clauses here.

9. We use the Past Progressive tense with I WISH and IF ONLY when we are referring to the UNREAL PRESENT or FUTURE. 

Examples:
I wish they were not visiting us tomorrow. (note: the real future situation here is that they are visiting us tomorrow.)

If only you were working with us instead of with him. It would be much more fun.   (note: the real present situation is that you are not working with us.)

You can learn how to use WISH and IF ONLY in more detail soon in another free DailyStep English Grammar Lesson.

 

These next uses of the Past Continuous are even more advanced:

10. We use the Past Continuous when we want to sound more polite and more tentative.                                


Examples:

I was hoping we could reach an agreement before the end of the day. (note: we use the Past Continuous here to sound more open-ended, and therefore make it sound as if agreement may still be possible.)

We were expecting it to be finished by now.  (note: again this sounds quite open-ended, as if it may still be possible for it to be finished.)

I was thinking perhaps we could consider this as an alternative (note: here, the speaker says "I was thinking perhaps we could..."  in order to make this suggestion sound more tentative and therefore perhaps more diplomatic)

I was wondering if you would like to join us for dinner.  (note: this is a way of making a polite invitation)

I was wondering if I could borrow your car for the weekend. (note: here, the speaker is making a polite request. It is much less direct than saying “Can I borrow your car for the weekend?”)

So, now you know ALL the different ways to use the Past Continuous - also called the Past Progressive - verb tense in English. How many ways are new for you? 

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How to use the Past Continuous verb tense in English