How to Use the English Past Continuous: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need
The policeman came in.
“What were you doing on the night of the murder?” he asked.
“I was studying English grammar, Sir.”
“Oh, were you? Can you prove it?”
“I can indeed. My mom was watching a series on Netflix, and my brother was learning English vocabulary. We were all sitting together right here.”
“Was he using an app for learning English, or was he studying from an English vocabulary book?”
“He was actually using the FluentU website, officer. He was learning English with fun videos, like movies.”
“Okay then. You are clearly innocent. Have a good day, Sir.”
And just like that, the past continuous saved Antonio from trouble.
Okay, this did not actually happen. But notice how a lot of the verbs in the story are in one specific tense—the past continuous.
Without this tense, it would be impossible to tell a story like this, or at least it would be very difficult.
You might not need to save yourself from trouble, but you certainly want to be able to tell stories and talk about the past easily and confidently.
To do that, you need to master the past continuous tense and learn how to use it like a native.
And that’s what this post is all about.
How to Use the English Past Continuous: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need
The past continuous (also known as past progressive) is one of those tenses learners of English love to learn.
It is easy to form, use and master, and it’s super common.
How to Form the Past Continuous
As it happens with each tense, the past continuous can be found in three forms: statements, negative sentences and questions.
A statement is just an affirmative sentence.
If you are not negating, making a question or giving an order, you are making a statement.
To build the past continuous for statements, you just need two things: the past simple of the verb to be and the present participle of the main verb:
I was reading
You were reading
He was reading
She was reading
It was reading
We were reading
They were reading
Have a look at some examples of full affirmative sentences:
My dad was reading at 8 p.m.
They were cooking dinner at that time.
I was learning English with FluentU.
What’s FluentU, you ask? It’s a language learning program that uses English videos to teach you English naturally.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Transforming (changing) a statement into a negative sentence in the past continuous is just as easy as adding not after the past tense of the verb to be. The rest of the elements stay the same:
I was not (wasn’t) reading
You were not (weren’t) reading
He was not (wasn’t) reading
She was not (wasn’t) reading
It was not (wasn’t) reading
We were not (weren’t) reading
They were not (weren’t) reading
The three statement examples from the previous section would look like this when negated:
My dad wasn’t reading at 8 p.m.
They weren’t cooking dinner at that time.
I wasn’t learning English with FluentU.
Asking questions with this tense is also super easy.
Just use inversion—put the verb in the first position and the person in the second position.
Add a beautiful question mark at the end, and you have a question in the past continuous:
Was I reading?
Were you reading?
Was he reading?
Was she reading?
Was it reading?
Were we reading?
Were they reading?
This is what we get if we transform our three statements into questions:
Was my dad reading at 8 p.m.?
Were they cooking dinner at that time?
Was I learning English with FluentU?
It doesn’t get easier than that!
How to Use the Past Continuous
The past continuous can be used for the following purposes.
To describe the background of a story
If you want to tell a story, first you will want to describe what was going on at the time it happened.
You need to tell how things were happening at that moment in the past (similar to using the present continuous to talk about things that are happening right now).
The sun was shining. The kids were having fun in the park, and the moms were talking about their plans for the weekend.
I know they were swimming then because I was sitting around 20 feet from them. We were having a nice afternoon together.
To talk about what someone was doing at a specific moment in the past
This usage is related to the previous one, but it is more time-specific.
If you want to say what someone was doing at a specific moment in the past (the exact time doesn’t have to be mentioned), use this tense:
It was 11 a.m. when Paul was having a bath.
The little kid was crying at that moment.
To talk about actions that lasted for some time in the past
Sometimes, you will need to say that an action lasted for some minutes, hours or even days.
The past continuous is the perfect tense to talk about them:
The dog was barking for hours.
She was studying English all afternoon.
To talk about two simultaneous actions that were going on in the past
Simultaneous means happening at the same time.
When two actions went on at the same time in the past, we use the past continuous for both of them:
I was washing the dishes while Mary was cleaning the bathroom.
Mom was sleeping and dad was watching TV.
It is very common to see the word while in this type of construction:
While the boy was jumping, the girl was running.
Thomas was drinking coffee while he was waiting for his friend.
Bear in mind (remember) that simultaneous actions don’t have to happen in the same room for you to use the past continuous.
They only have to be happening at the same time:
While I was waking up in New York, my boyfriend was landing in London.
She was thinking about what her friend was doing 2,000 miles away.
To describe ongoing actions that were interrupted by another action
This is one of the most common uses of the past continuous.
When you have an action going on in the past that gets interrupted by another sudden action, use the past continuous for the ongoing one.
She was taking a shower when the telephone rang.
When he opened the door, they were eating dinner already.
As you will see in the next section (The Past Continuous vs. The Past Simple), when is a word very commonly seen in these kinds of sentences:
When the accident happened, I was sitting on that bench.
He found me when I was eating dinner.
To talk about past repeated actions that annoyed someone
You probably know already that you can use the present progressive to talk about other people’s habits that annoy you.
But did you know that you can do the same with the past continuous?
The three most common adverbs of frequency in this type of sentence are always, forever and constantly:
She was always playing loud music.
You were shouting forever!
They were constantly arguing when they were together.
To talk about a change of mind
I love this use of the past continuous. It shows the versatility of English tenses.
If you had a plan in mind, but you ended up doing something different, use the past continuous of going to for your original plan.
I was going to buy some oranges, but I saw the bananas and I changed my mind.
They were going to spend the day at the beach, but it started raining.
To make wishes about the present
This last use of the past continuous is also amazing and surprising.
If you are doing something at the moment, but you wish reality were different and you would like to be doing something else, express your frustration with the past continuous.
I wish we were sunbathing in Athens right now.
I wish she were sleeping!
Notice the use of were after the verb to wish in these sentences. This has to do with the English subjunctive mood, which uses were for all persons in the past tense of to be.
I wish you were smiling.
I wish he were smiling.
The Past Continuous vs. The Past Simple
It is very common in English to use different tenses when we are talking about the past.
Two tenses that go together quite often are the past continuous and the past simple.
These two tenses give learners of English a grammar headache from time to time because sometimes it is difficult to know which one you have to use.
There are several rules knowing when to use each of them, but when they appear together in a sentence, it almost always comes to a construction in which an action was happening until it got interrupted by another one.
In this case, we use the past continuous for the ongoing action, and the past simple for the action that interrupted the first one.
Sarah was taking a bath when someone knocked.
My dad was making breakfast when the smoke alarm went off.
As you can see, when is normally used in front of the past simple part of the sentence, whether it is at the beginning or in the middle.
When Caroline arrived, John was sleeping.
John was sleeping when Caroline arrived.
Notice the only difference between the two sentences (apart from the word order) is the comma that appears if we start with when:
When she left, I was doing my homework.
When they met, it was raining.
Resources to Practice the Past Continuous Tense
Now that you know everything about the past continuous, it is time to practice it!
English Test Store
Despite its name, this webpage is completely free.
It not only includes tests to practice the past continuous by itself, but also tests with the past simple and continuous. And even some with the past simple, the past continuous and the past perfect all together.
The questions are all multiple-choice, and you get immediate feedback and grammar explanations after each answer.
Perfect English Grammar
This is another superb (amazing) page to practice the past continuous.
At the end of the first exercise, you will find more exercises (questions and mixed sentences—statements, negative sentences and questions).
You can check each answer separately, and even get the correct answer to a sentence if you don’t know what to write in the text box.
You can download all the exercises for free in PDF format.
Focus English School
This page offers free elementary and pre-intermediate exercises on the past continuous.
You can choose between exercises with only this tense or exercises with both the past simple and continuous.
To check your answers, just click “check” at the end of the exercises.
You can also ask for some help (by clicking on “hint”) and see all the correct answers together by clicking on the link at the beginning of each exercise.
This is another free resource where you can practice the past continuous tense by itself or together with the past simple.
However, the level of the sentences is higher than any other resource in this section, so make sure you understand all the vocabulary before trying to answer the questions.
You can check your answers by clicking on “check” at the end of each exercise.
Englisch Hilfen is always there when you want to do some grammar exercises to practice what you know.
Its exercises on the past continuous are well designed and offer answers with grammar explanations for both your correct and incorrect answers.
At the end of each exercise, you will find a list of similar exercises where you can choose the next exercise you want to do.
As you can see, the English past continuous is not a difficult tense.
Building it is very straightforward (simple) if you know the past simple of to be and how to form the present participle, and its uses are specific enough not to be confused (mistaken) for other tenses very often.
If you learn how to use this tense—especially when it appears with the past simple—you will be able to talk about the majority of things that were going on at some point in the past.
Thanks to this tense, you can leave your storytelling stress behind and be able to speak confidently and correctly about many things.
What else can you ask from such an easy tense?
Stay curious my friends, and as always, happy learning!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)