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Also Known As: Past Progressive

As the names suggest, this verb tense is what we use when talking about something that happened “before now”, or in the past, and either “progressed” or “continued” for a set amount of time, or until another event occurred. Past continuous happens until something else interrupts it or at the same time another event is occurring.

It’s not something that is still happening. 

To Form the Past Continuous Tense 

Use the helping verbs that are the past tense of the word be, which are was and were.

When discussing a single person or thing, you’ll use was. For example, I was, she was, he was, it was.

For more than one person, place, or thing, you would use were. For example, you would use we were or they were.

The verb itself changes, too. You’ll add the suffix “-ing”(more details below the table) at the end of the verb, (which is actually the present participle – more on that below, as well).

See the table below for the past continuous tense of the word “sit”.

When using a past continuous verb in a question, you place the was or were at the beginning of the sentence, followed by the naming word, and then the “-ing” portion of the verb.

For use with a negative statement, the naming word is first again, followed by was or were, the negative word (in our example, we’re using not), and finally the “-ing” verb.

 

Statement Question Negative 
I was sitting at the table. Was I sitting at the table?  I was not sitting at the table. 
You were sitting at the table.  Were you sitting at the table?  You were not sitting at the table. 
He was sitting at the table Was he sitting at the table?  He was not sitting at the table. 
She was sitting at the table.  Was she sitting at the table?  She was not sitting at the table. 
They were sitting at the table. Were they sitting at the table?  They were not sitting at the table
We were sitting at the table.  Were we sitting at the table? We were not sitting at the table. 
It was sitting at the table.  Was it sitting at the table?  It was not sitting at the table. 

 

Review: How to Form the Present Participle 

Typically, we form the present participle by adding the suffix “-ing”. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. In some cases, you may need to either drop or double the last letter. 


For verbs like be, do, work, and cry, all you need to do is add -ing. They become being, doing, working, and crying. 


However, there are three other rules that apply to creating a present participle.

First,  if the base form of the verb ends in a consonant, then a stressed vowel, and then another consonant, you will need to double the last letter.

In our example above, we used the base word “sit”. “S” is a consonant, followed by the stressed vowel “i”, followed by the last consonant “t”. So, when you’re creating the present participle form of this verb, it becomes “sitting”.

Remember that the definition of vowel includes the letters “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, and “u”.

In addition, if the base verb ends in “ie”, then to form the present participle, the “ie” is dropped and a “y” is added. The verb “lie” becomes “lying”, the verb “die” becomes “dying”, and so on. In this way, sometimes “y” acts as the necessary vowel in the syllable.

 

The last exception to the “-ing” rule occurs when the base verb ends in a vowel then a consonant followed by an “e”. In this case, the “e” is dropped. For example, the verb “come” changes to “coming”, the verb “clone” changes to “cloning”, and the verb “hope” changes to “hoping”. 

 

“Why Am I Using a Present Participle in the Past Continuous Tense?”

English is so confusing, sometimes, isn’t it?  We can totally acknowledge that. It’s a weird language.

There is a reason for this particular question, though.

While we are using the present participle, we are also using the qualifying verbs “was” and “were”, which show that the event being talked about “was happening” in the past. It’s over now, but we describe the event or situation that “was present” and ongoing when it was occurring.

When to Use the Past Continuous Tense

 

To Describe an Event Or Situation That Was Ongoing In the Past

It happened in the past, and now it’s done. Here are a few examples:

 

Statement Question Negative 
I was swimming.  Was I swimming  I was not swimming. 
You were hiking.  Were you hiking? You were not hiking.
We were yelling Were we yelling?  We were not yelling.
They were drinking.  Were they drinking?  They were not drinking. 


To Describe an Event Or Situation That Was Interrupted

We often use past continuous tense to discuss events or situations that are interrupted by another. You can use words like when, until, or before to show when one event stopped and a new one began. Here are a few examples of that usage:

 

Statement Question Negative 
She was reading until the doorbell rang.  Was she reading until the doorbell rang?  She was not reading until the doorbell rang.
He was yawning loudly until I looked at him.  Was he yawning loudly until you looked at him?  He was not yawning loudly until I looked at him. 
They were winning when I left for work.  Were they winning when I left for work?  They were not winning when I left for work. 
I was swimming before I saw the shark.  Was I swimming before I saw the shark?  I was not swimming before I saw the shark. 


To Describe an Event Or Situation That Happened At the Same Time As Another Event

We sometimes use past continuous to talk about one event that happened at the same time as another. Both verbs can be past continuous, or one event may stop because of interruption or completion. Words like “while” and “as” show that the two events are happening at the same time. Here are some examples:

 

Statement Question Negative 
They were drinking while they were watching the game Were they drinking while watching the game? They were not drinking while watching the game. 
It was sliding while I was running to catch it Was it sliding while I was running to catch it? It was not sliding while I was running to catch it.
He was cleaning the bathroom while I was mopping the kitchen. Was he cleaning the bathroom while I was mopping the kitchen?  He was not cleaning while I was mopping the kitchen. 
We were talking as we were cooking Were we talking as we were cooking?  We were not talking as we were cooking. 

 

To Talk About Something That Happened At a Specific Time

Past continuous is a great tense to use when talking about something that happened at a specific time, like noon, five p.m., or after dinner.  You can put the prepositional phrase describing the time at the beginning of the sentence or in the middle.

Here are a few example statements:

You were watching tv alone at 11 p.m. on the night of the murder.
At 9:30, she was walking into her yoga class.
They were napping after lunch at work until their bosses found out.

And some questions:

Were you watching tv alone all night?
Was she walking into her yoga class at 9:30?
Were they napping after lunch until their bosses found out?

Also, a few negative statements:

You were not watching tv alone at 11 p.m. on the night of the murder.
At 9:30, she was not walking into her yoga class.
They were not napping after lunch at work until their bosses found out.

A Note About Non-Continuous Verbs

Using a continuous tense is dependent on the kind of verb being used because there are quite a few verbs that simply do not work in a continuous tense.

Those that do work are verbs that you can see or hear being done. They are action verbs, and they take place on a visible or audible level. One test to assure that these verbs “work” are to try them with the phrase can + see/hear. Let’s look at a few examples of this:

I can see someone jump, so jump can be continuous.
I can hear someone yell, so yell can be continuous.
I can see someone faint, so faint can be continuous.
I can not see OR hear someone remember.
I can not see OR hear someone have.


Verbs that are non-continuous include those that are feelings, thoughts, senses other than seeing and hearing, convey communication, or show some other state of being.

On occasion, verbs will be mixed, which conveys that they have more than one meaning. For example, the word “have” can mean ownership. You would not say “Katie has been having a cat for the last two years.” That would be incorrect.

You could say, however, that “Katie had been having fun with her cat until her dog ran in the room.” In this context, having means “experiencing”, and it can be used as a continuous verb.

When you are unable to use a continuous verb tense, you will need to revert to the simple present tense instead.  

Stories Often Use Past Continuous Tense

Both fiction and nonfiction stories use past continuous tense to talk about situations that have happened in the past. It’s very common to use this tense in stories. 

Examples from Literature

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry says, “Do you mean to say that thing that killed the unicorn, that was drinking its blood, that was Voldemort?” Imagine if J. K. Rowling had not used the past continuous tense here: Do you mean to say that thing that killed the unicorn, that drank its blood, that was Voldemort?”

Using the past tense is not grammatically incorrect, but by using the past continuous tense, Rowling adds suspense and intensity to the passage. She puts the reader in the moment, enabling us to see Voldemort committing this dreadful act.

Or, in the film version of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, upon being saved by Peter, rather than thanking the Pevensies, Trumpkin says, “They were doing fine drowning me without your help.” It would mean something totally different if he said, “They did fine drowning me without your help.” Not to mention that without the past continuous “were doing,” it would be implied that Trumpkin was dead.

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