English Grammar Basic Grammar and syntax

The past continuous

Past Continuous

The past continuous is one of the most used verb tenses we have in English. In this lesson, we learn when to use the past continuous tense, how to use it, and its different uses.

NOTE: The past continuous tense is also commonly known as the past progressive tense.

When to use the Past Continuous tense?

We use the past continuous when we want to talk about what was happening at a particular time in the past. Imagine that you just got home from a party and your father confronts you. He tells you that he has been waiting for you for an hour and he asks you:“What were you doing when I called you?“.

Now, you are going to use the past continuous tense to frame the answer to the question as it asks what you were doing at the time.

Possible replies:

  • My phone was getting charged, and I was discussing something with Ron.
  • I was eating dinner.
  • I was driving the car.

Look at all of these sentences, we are using the past continuous tense to talk about what was happening at a certain time in the past. We have not mentioned the past time marker as he (father) already knows the time.

Structure: subject + was/were + V1+ing + past time marker

WAS: singular subjects (I, he, she, it & singular noun names)
WERE: plural subjects (We, they, you & plural noun names)

PAST TIME MARKERS: last night, yesterday, in the morning, two hours ago, 7 pm, when you called, some time back, last year, last month, etc.


  • I was partying with my friends last night.
  • He was sleeping when you called.
  • They were playing cricket in the morning.
  • She was calling me an hour ago.
  • My friends were talking about you last night.
  • Were you sleeping in the exam room?
  • Some kids were fighting in front of my house.

Nota: Es importante mencionar el tiempo de la acción en tiempo pasado continuo. Si no se menciona el tiempo de la acción, entiéndase que la entiende el oyente o el lector.

Now, let’s look at all the uses of the past continuous in English.

1. An ongoing action in the past

This is the most common use of the past continuous tense to talk about what was going on/happening at a certain time in the past.


  • She was teaching digital marketing.
  • I was talking to your mother in the morning.
  • Yesterday at the time, I was writing an article.
  • They were drinking on the terrace last night.
  • He was talking to students one by one between 7 pm and 8 pm.
  • At 11 ‘0 clock, we were eating dinner.
  • What were you doing 10 minutes ago?

NOTA: puede usar otra acción pasada (tiempo pasado simple) para referirse al tiempo de la acción.

  • We were partying when you were in the office.
  • When she reached the station, I was watching my favorite series: FRIENDS.

2. Interrupted action

We commonly use the past continuous tense to talk about actions that were happening in the past and were interrupted by a short action (shorter than the progressive action) in the past simple tense.


  • I was sleeping when you called.
    (The continuous action of sleeping got interrupted/stopped because of another action: you called.)
  • We were watching movies when my parents came back home.
  • She was eating dinner when the bell rang.
  • They were playing games on their phones when the boss entered into the meeting.

3. Multiple progressive actions (parallel actions)

También usamos este tiempo verbal para hablar de dos o más acciones que sucedieron simultáneamente en algún momento del pasado.


  • While you were playing games on your phone, I was taking notes.
  • While all of you were enjoying the food, I was working hard on my project.
  • Last night, we were drinking on the terrace, making fun of each other, calling each other by funny names, and playing games.
  • Ron was doing his homework while Nancy was talking to her friends.

4. To paint a picture of a past scene

También podríamos usar el pasado continuo para hablar sobre la escena o la atmósfera de un evento en el pasado.


  • When I entered the office, my manager was shouting at my team, the HR was explaining the company’s policy to a freshman, some employees were talking to their clients, and the others were sitting idle.
  • When the party started, everyone was having fun. Some people were dancing; some were having snacks; my friends were sitting in a circle and cracking jokes at each other; waiters were serving food at the tables, and a man was yelling at a woman who seemed like his wife.

5. Habitual action in the past

También podemos usar el tiempo pasado continuo para hablar de acciones que se repitieron en el pasado usando constantemente y siempre.


  • As much as I can recall, he was always cracking jokes and making everybody laugh.
  • She was always coming late to the class and irritating the teacher.
  • My mother was constantly giving me lectures on the importance of food at the time of eating dinner.
  • Jenny was always changing her boyfriends.

The past continuous tense positive sentence structure

Subject Auxiliary verb (was/were) Present participle (V1+ing) object/modifier
I was sleeping at this time yesterday.
We were partying last night.

The past continuous tense negative sentence structure

Subject was/were + not Present participle (V1+ing) object/modifier
I was not doing anything.
He was not working out in the morning.

The past continuous tense interrogative sentence structure

Was/were subject Present participle (V1+ing) object/modifier + ?
Were you partying last night?
Was he sleeping with you?

Nota: podemos usar palabras interrogativas (qué, dónde, cuándo, por qué, cómo) antes del verbo auxiliar.

  • What were you doing with my laptop the other day?
  • Why was he arguing with you?
  • When were you making this project?
  • Where were they partying last night?
  • How was she doing it?

The Past Continuous tense + the Simple past tense

Generalmente usamos el tiempo pasado simple con el tiempo pasado continuo en dos casos:

  1. When the simple past tense refers to a specific time when the continuous tense was occurring.
  2. When the simple past tense interrupts the continuous tense.


  1. I was sleeping. (Past continuous)
  2. He woke up. (simple past)

We can combine these sentences and use the simple past tense to refer to a specific time when the current action was happening. We will use the conjunction ‘when’ before the simple past tense.

  1. I was sleeping when he woke up.
  2. When he woke up, I was sleeping.

Notice“when you woke up“is also referring to a past time, working as a past time marker.

  1. I was sleeping. (Past continuous)
  2. You rang the bell. (Simple past)

Let’s join them together.

  • I was sleeping when you rang the bell.
  • When you rang the bell, I was sleeping.

Notice“when you rang the bell“is referring to a past action that interrupts the continuous action. I was sleeping until something happened (you rang the bell).


Both while and when are used at the beginning of a clause. ‘When’ is usually used before a clause in the simple past tense and while is used before a clause showing the continuous past tense. Look at the following examples to understand its uses in the past tense:


  • While I was recording a lesson, a bike exploded outside my house.
  • I was recording a lesson when a bike exploded outside my house.

Both sentences have the same meaning but focus on different parts. The first emphasizes the longer action (past continuous tense), and the second focuses on the shorter action (past simple tense).

Active/passive voice

  • I was writing a book last year. (active voice)
  • He was beating the kids. (active voice)
  • A book was being written by me last year. (passive voice)
  • The kids were being by him. (passive voice)

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