Past Continuous Tense: Definition, Rules & Examples

I was writing this article when…

This is an example of the past continuous tense, often referred to as the past progressive tense. The past continuous refers to an action that happened in the past, and we use it to talk about something we were doing during a particular moment in the past.

past continuous tense example

We use the past continuous in the following situations:

  • To discuss or express an action that occurred in a specific moment in the past.
  • To ‘set the scene’ when telling stories and to elaborate on it.
  • To make clear that an action happened before another action in the past.

For example:

  • I was making lunch when…

Past Continuous: Rules and Formation

The past continuous comes with its own specific rules. It’s formed using the past tense of the verbto be; and the present participle of a base verb + -ing in its most basic form.

Subject + was/ were + present participle verb + -ing +  extra information

  • Was is used for: I, she, he, and it.
  • Were is used for: You, they, we, and you all. 
  • Was is also used for: Proper names of singular people, the name of a country, and continents, etc.
  • Were is also used for: 2 or more mentioned proper nouns.

For example:

  • She was watching a film…
  • They were building…
  • I was thinking…
  • We were wondering…
  • You were saying…
  • Sally and Tom were eating…
  • It was terrifying…
  • Spain was recovering…
  • France and the USA were reducing…

Past Continuous Tense & The Past Simple Tense

The past continuous or past progressive is often used in conjunction with the past simple. This is because the past continuous leads itself to the question of when the action took place and what else was happening.

For example:

  • We were sitting outside in the garden when the rain began to fall.

The past continuous is ‘was sitting,’ and the past simple is ‘began.’

The simple past in this clause interrupts the flow of the past continuous tense, showing that something happened in between the action.

You can use conjunctions to connect the two clauses. Such as,

  • When
  • As 
  • While
  • Whilst (Rarely used as it is considered very formal and old)
  • That 
  • At
  • Because

Example sentences:

  • She was watching a movie as her parents arrived.
  • They were building a toy house while their daughter played.
  • I was thinking about my job prospects when I received your email.
  • We were wondering about her when you called us.
  • You were saying that you hated movies.
  • Sally and Tom were eating in the kitchen when the phone rang.
  • It was terrifying when I thought I saw a ghost.
  • Spain was recovering from the financial crisis in 2008 when Google released its first public version of Chrome.
  • France and the USA were working together as Spain looked on.

Past Continuous: Affirmative Statements & Examples

The past continuous can be formed into an affirmative statement. We’ve already given some examples, but let’s look at the affirmative past continuous sentence structure in conjunction with the past simple.

Subject + was / were + present participle verb + -ing + extra information

Example sentences:

  • Your cat was playing with the ball outside when I arrived.
  • I was filling up my water bottle when the faucet stopped working.
  • We were eating lunch when the waiter asked if we wanted anything else.
  • Hazel was playing with her sister when her dad arrived home from work.

Past Continuous: Negative Statements & Examples

Past continuous can also be made into negative statements, where the past participle verbs, ‘was and were’ are negative.

To form a past continuous negative statement, we use the following structure:

Subject + was / were + -not + present participle verb + -ing + extra information

Note: You can use contractions, especially in informal language or everyday speech. ‘Was not becomes wasn’t and were not becomes weren’t.

Example Sentences:

  • We weren’t playing when it happened.
  • Sally wasn’t helping while her classmates completed the work.
  • David wasn’t singing anymore because he didn’t feel like it.

Past Continuous: Affirmative Interrogative Statements & Examples

Affirmative interrogative statements ask questions. In the past, it’s used to gain more information about what someone or something was doing.

To form a past continuous affirmative interrogative question, we use the following structure:

Was / were + present participle verb + -ing + extra information + ?

Note: You can also add ‘what’ at the beginning of the question, but it’s not always necessary.

Example Sentences:

  • What were you doing on the night in question?
  • Were you watching T.V last night?
  • Was she behaving?

Past Continuous: Negative Interrogative Statements & Examples

Negative interrogative statements also ask questions, but it’s assumed that the answer to the question is ‘no,’ or it could be a rhetorical question to which you already know the answer. Rhetorical questions are used for style and effect.

To form a past continuous negative interrogative question, we use the following structure:

Was / were + -not + present participle verb + -ing + extra information + ?

Example Sentences:

  • Weren’t you singing last night?
  • Weren’t you working hard enough?

Note: Often, the negative interrogative in the past continuous is considered very formal and is used in fictional writing to add to a story or for rhetorical questions.

Past Continuous Tense Examples 

To round it all up, we’ve got 10 examples of past continuous sentences.

  • Was it terrifying when you traveled to Europe alone?
  • We were sitting down watching T.V when the bell rang.
  • I was eating ice cream when a seagull came and stole it.
  • I was walking here when an older adult asked me for directions.
  • Weren’t you playing along?
  • It wasn’t terrifying crossing the bridge. 
  • Weren’t you panicking when you crossed customs and border protection?
  • We weren’t overreacting about the news.
  • Fred was shouting.
  • I was googling the answers when my teacher came up to me.

If you’ve enjoyed learning about the past continuous form, why not look at our other verb tense-related material?

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