Chapter 5-8-6: The Past Progressive / Past Continuous Tense

Grammar > Using Verbs > Verb Tenses > Past Continuous

I was studying English last Tuesday when my friend called.” “I was studying English at 5pm last Tuesday.

WHEN TO USE IT: The past progressive (also known as the past continuous) tense is used to describe actions ongoing in the past. These actions often take place within a specific time frame. While actions referred to in the present progressive have some connection to the present, actions referred in the past progressive have no immediate or obvious connection to the present. The on-going actions took place and were completed at some point well before the time of speaking or writing.

Some common keywords often associated with this verb tense are as, when, while, and in the process of. Each of the highlighted verbs in the following sentences is in the past progressive tense.

The cat was walking along the tree branch.

This sentence describes an action that took place over a period of continuous time in the past. The cat's actions have no immediate relationship to anything occurring now in the present.

Lena was telling a story about the exploits of a red cow when a tree branch broke the parlour window.

She was eating when the phone rang.

Here the actions "was telling" and “was eating” took place in the past and continued for some time in the past. Note that people use the past continuous together with the simple past. The past continuous refers to a "longer" or "background" action that was in progress; the simple past refers to a shorter action that interrupted the longer action, or happened in the middle of it.

When the recess bell rang, Jesse was writing a long division problem on the blackboard.

This sentence describes actions ("rang" and "was writing") that took place sometime in the past, and emphasises the continuing nature of one of the actions ("was writing").

The archivists were eagerly waiting for the delivery of the former prime minister's private papers.

Here the ongoing action of "waiting" occurred at some time unconnected to the present.

Between 1942 and 1944 the Frank and Van Damm families were hiding in a Amsterdam office building.

In this sentence, the action of hiding took place over an extended period of time and the continuing nature of the hiding is emphasised.

You were working in the Purchasing Department last week, weren't you?

They were living in Paris for a year.

The past continuous can be used to say that an action was temporary. Here, the people are no longer working in the Purchasing Department nor are they still living in Paris.

Debbie was always telling us funny stories about her life and making jokes.

The past continuous can be used with words such as “always” to talk about things that happened repeatedly.

Important Points:

Some verbs are not normally used in the past continuous tense, because these verbs are not normally action verbs. These verbs include: believe, belong, depend, hate, know, like, love, mean, need, prefer, realise, suppose, want, understand.

He believed in ghosts. (simple past)

He was believing in ghosts. [incorrect]

For habits in the past, use “used to”. For example:

He used to swim every day.


Spelling the past progressive is not easy. It is not as simple as just adding “ing” to the end of some verbs. Instead, you must use the present participle. See grammar Chapter 5-5-1 on the ESL Radius website for more information on the rules for correctly spelling the present participle.

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