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Advanced Level: Past Continuous Tense

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Was/were + present participle

You were reading when I walked in.
Were you studying when I called you?
You were not working when I called you.

The Past Continuous has 4 main uses/functions:

Use 1 – an interrupted action in the past

Here the Past Continuous is used to indicate a long action that was interrupted. Usually the action that interrupts the long action is the Past Simple.

I was studying when Danny called me.
She was answering an important e-mail when I interrupted her.
While I was jogging, it started raining.
What was he doing when you walked into the room?
John was waiting for us when we got off the train.
I broke my leg while I was skiing.

Use 2 – parallel actions

The Past Continuous is used to indicate that two actions were happening at the same time; hence parallel actions.

I was watching TV while the children were playing outside.
Were you listening while Kevin was explaining the new policy?
While Sarah was speaking to Fred, Peter was trying to get her attention.
What were they doing while you were working?
We were discussing the new project and having a good time as well.

Use 3 – describing a mood/atmosphere

We can use the Past Continuous to describe several actions happening at the same time to describe the atmosphere or situation before or as a main action occurs.

When I walked into the bar, Danny and Fred were arguing again. Chris was chatting to the barman with his usual pint. Peter and Sarah were flirting with each other and Liz was telling the rest of the gang one of her outrageous stories about when she was an actress in the West End. The pub was already smelling of pub food and beer and I just felt that it was so good to be home.

Use 4 – repetition – irritation with 'always'

The Past Continuous with words such as 'always' or 'constantly' indicates something repeated or irritating. Words like 'always' should be placed between the auxiliary 'be' and the present participle.

She was always coming late for meetings. No wonder she was never promoted.
He was always boasting about his financial successes. It irritated us all no end.
I was constantly misplacing my glasses. It’s not a problem with contacts now.

While or when

With the Past Continuous sentences have clauses that start with ‘while’ or ‘when’. ‘While’ usually starts the clause with the Past Continuous, ‘when’ usually starts the clause with the Past Simple.

It started raining while I was jogging.  / While I was jogging, it started raining.
When it started raining, I was jogging. / I was jogging when it started raining.

Notice that although the meaning of each pair of sentences is the same, 'while' or 'when' shift emphasis.

Lesson by Tristan, teacher at EC Malta English school

Now complete the following with the correct form:

  • 1. Last night I _ on my thesis and it took me a while to realise that my phone was ringning.

  • 2. When you _ I was in a meeting so I couldn’t answer your call.

  • 3. Danny can never agree with Fred. They _ .

  • 4. Why did you disagree with me at the meeting? _ to make me look incompetent?

  • 5. Sarah _ the buffet while I was seeing to the drinks.

  • 6. Peter _ home when the accident occurred.

  • 7. I _ to work, even when it rained.

  • 8. Anna _ her speech when I walked in.