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English grammar explanations (past continuous).

Understanding past continuous (or past progressive).

The basics - structure:

The syntax of the structure is: subject + auxiliary verb "was" or "were" + verb root + ing:

It was raining all day yesterday.

I was walking along the road.

John and Mary were talking on the phone.


Question forms:

We make inversion between the subject and the auxiliary "was" or "were":

Were you waiting for me?

Was John watching television?


Negative forms:

We use "not", which combines with the auxiliary to make a negative sentence:

I wasn't having a very good time.

They weren't eating when I came in.      top arrow


When / As / While:

We can use any of these three conjunctions in front of a past continuous verb:

While / As / When she was coming home, a friend greeted her in the street.


Past continuous - use in real life:

Unfinished actions in the past.

Past continuous is used to talk about unfinished actions in the past. The action is unfinished because it is interrupted by another action:

I was having a bath when the phone rang.

We were watching television when my mother came in.

"Why did you interrupt me? I was studying!"
"I'm sorry. I didn't know you were studying."

It is common to use past continuous when we mention a specific time during the unfinished action:

At the beginning of the match Real Madrid were winning.

I was having a coffee with Mary at 4 o'clock on Monday afternoon.

"What were you doing at 12.30 pm last Sunday?"
"I can't remember what I was doing."

Unfinished and finished actions (simple or continuous).


I was seeing Mary at 8 o'clock yesterday evening.

I saw Mary at 8 o'clock yesterday evening.

We must assume that the first example is a longer unfinished action so "see" in this example means I had arranged to meet Mary; we were talking, walking, having a coffee, etc. probably before and after 8 o'clock. In the second example, the verb of the action is in past simple so it is a finished action. We assume that in the second example "see" means to notice momentarily because it happened (and finished) at 8 o'clock exactly.

Past continuous can be used with another past continuous action. This is because more than one unfinished action can happen at the same time. This is common when describing a scene before the completed actions (past simple) of the story start:

It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining brightly. A light breeze was blowing through the trees and the birds were singing. I opened my eyes, sat up in bed and looked out of the window...

- Exercises on past continuos...

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