#263: The Past Continuous Tense: How and When to Use It (With 6 Examples)

Jan 18, 2023 | Grammar, Verb Tenses

If you avoid some grammar tenses because you’re not sure how to use them correctly, it can lead to unnecessary grammar mistakes

It can also make it more difficult to express exactly what you want in English conversation.

In today’s Confident English lesson, we’ll explore the past continuous tense in English. Also known as the past progressive.

That means a review of the past continuous structures so you can use them accurately. And, more importantly, you’ll learn 6 real-life examples of when to use the past continuous.

By the end, you’ll be able to use the past continuous form to confidently answer 3 questions I have for you.

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The Past Continuous Tense: How and When to Use It | 6 Examples

Before we look at 6 specific examples of how and when to use the past continuous, let’s review the structure so you use the tense accurately. 

The structures for the past progressive tense are as follows:

Positive: Subject + [was/were] + verb[ing]

  • I was planning to call you but lost track of time.

Negative: Subject + [was/were] + not verb[ing]

  • She wasn’t sleeping when you called. She was working with her phone on silent mode.

Also, be careful with your verb choice.

Stative verbs are not used in the past continuous form. These verbs, which describe a state of mind, opinion, need, or awareness, never use the past progressive.

Stative verbs include verbs such as believe, dislike, hate, like, love, need, prefer, realize, seem, understand, want, etc.

For example, we would not say, “I was preferring the winter weather before it got too cold.”

Instead, we use the simple past to say, “I preferred the winter weather before it got too cold.”

Stative verbs imply a continuous or ongoing action, so the use of the past progressive is not necessary.

Use 1: Provide Context/Background for Telling Stories

When you tell a story, you reference the past. You’re describing something that already happened or something you experienced.

To help make the story interesting, you provide context. The background. This helps to set the tone or mood. You’re providing a mental picture for your listener.

And that’s where you want to use the past continuous tense.

 

Scenario 1: Imagine your telling someone about a recent vacation. To highlight how relaxing it was on your day, you might provide some background details such as: 

“When I woke up, the waves were rolling on shore, the sun was inching up over the mountains, warming the sand, and the palm leaves were rustling in the breeze. It was the perfect start to the vacation.”

 

Scenario 2: Think about an important historical event you’ve experienced. Imagine someone asking you, “What were you doing when…” 

For example, “What were you doing when you heard the election results?

In describing the context, you might say, “I was at an election party. A group of us were chatting and the music was blaring when they announced the results. There was so much noise that we didn’t hear them right away.”

And that leads me to Use 2.

Use 2: Highlight Overlapping Events and Interruptions

Overlapping Events 

The second scenario in Use 1 also describes overlapping events. In other words, two events happening at the same time.

To show that two events are overlapping – and to show which one started first – you’ll use the past continuous.

There are 2 structures we use to do this:

  1. When + Past Simple
  • I was chatting with friends when they announced the results.
  • When they announced the results, I was chatting with friends.

In both cases, I was chatting with friends first. Then the other action happened.

  1. At midnight, At 7:00 PM, In September, By the age of 12

These specific indications of time show that an event was ongoing before and after. 

For example:

  • By the age of 12, I was playing concerts in major cities across the country. (This was true before and after the age of 12.)
  • By the time I was in my mid-30s, I was putting a significant part of my paychecks toward my retirement fund.”
  • In September, I was preparing for our next major project. 
  • I was cooking dinner at 7 PM last night. 

 

Interruptions

The past continuous also shows what was happening when an interruption occurred.

Scenario 3: Imagine you missed a call from a loved one and they ask you what was going on. 

You might say, “I was cooking in the kitchen and the kids were watching TV with the volume on high when you called the first time. I didn’t hear the phone.”

Scenario 4: Say you’ve had a chaotic morning and you’re retelling the events to a coworker. 

You might share, “The kids were sleeping deeply when the alarm rang and jolted them awake.”

Notice in those examples we’re using the same when + past simple structure.

Use 3: Emphasize Length of Time (All Day, All Morning, etc.)

Why might this be useful?

Scenario 5: Imagine you’ve accomplished a major milestone at work. You and your team recently finished an all-consuming project. And you want to emphasize how much time you’ve spent on this project.

The past continuous combined with phrases that explain the length of time help you do this.

Example phrases include:

  • All day/month/year
  • All morning/afternoon/evening
  • All day/night
  • For hours/days/weeks/months/years

In describing the effort to others, you might say:

“We were working on this – non-stop – all year. It’s hard to believe we’re finally finished.”

Here’s another example. 

Scenario 6: Say you’re a new parent and you’re telling your friend how difficult last night was with your infant. 

During that conversation, you might express, “It was a terrible night. She was crying all night and we hardly slept.”

Use 4: Discuss Past Habits (Always, Constantly, Usually)

Usually, when we talk about habits, we use the present simple. For example, “I always read at night before bed.” 

But what if the habit is no longer true? You might have broken a bad habit. Or your younger brother grew out of a childhood habit. 

This is where the past continuous is helpful. It tells us that habits from the past are no longer true.

To do this, we combine the past continuous with adverbs and adverb phrases to describe the frequency, including:

  • Always
  • Usually
  • Constantly
  • Rarely
  • All the time
  • The entire time

Scenario 7: Imagine you’re reminiscing about your first few years at a company. In doing so, you might say, “During my first year, I was constantly making mistakes. There was so much to learn.”

Scenario 8: You can use the tense to describe where you used to live and your neighbor’s (annoying) habits. The entire time we lived there, our neighbors were partying and yelling every other day. In the end, we decided to sell the house and move to a more peaceful neighborhood.”

Use 5: Make a Polite Request (I was wondering if…)

You’ll notice when English speakers make polite requests, they use the past continuous. 

There is a simple sentence structure we use for this: I was wondering if…

For example:

  • Asking your friend for a favor: “I was wondering if we could borrow your truck for our move?”
  • Inviting a coworker to your house for the first time: “I was wondering if you’d like to come to our house this weekend? We’re having some friends over for a backyard BBQ.”

 

Sidenote: You can use this same structure – without ‘if’ – to ask indirect questions. 

This might be useful if you’re not sure it’s appropriate to ask a question.

For example:

  • I was wondering what you’re doing this weekend. (Indirect) 
    • What are you doing this weekend? (Direct)
  • We were wondering when you’ll have a decision. (Indirect)
    • When will you have a decision? (Direct)

Be careful not to overuse this. The ‘I was wondering (if)…” structure is vague language. It can make the meaning less clear.

Use 6: Indicate a Change of Mind

Have you ever made a plan and then changed your mind at the last minute?

Of course, you have. We all have.

The past continuous helps us show what our original plan was and then we decided to do in the end.

Scenario 9: Imagine made plans to move to another city at some point in the past. You started making plans for 1 location but then changed your mind. You could say: “I was thinking about moving to Washington DC, but decided to move to New York instead.”

Scenario 10: Let’s say you talking about your plans for a vacation. In the process, the cost of airline tickets and airport delays changed your plans. You might tell a friend, “We were planning to go back to Europe. We haven’t visited in years. But the flight costs and the long delays made us change our minds. We’re going to travel somewhere closer to home instead.”

Now I have 3 questions for you to help you practice.

Using what you learned in this lesson, how would you answer these questions?

  1. Think of your most recent vacation. What was the first day like? Describe it or provide the context.
  2. What is a past habit you broke or grew out of? Use “When I was a kid, I always/never/constantly…”
  3. Tell me about a time when you changed your mind. What were you originally thinking? And what did you decide in the end?

You can share your answers — as well as your questions — with me in the comments below.

~ Annemarie

 

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