When to use the Past Continuous

The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and was still going on at the time of speaking. In other words, it expresses an unfinished or incomplete action in the past.

It is used:

  • often, to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. “The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly. She was looking for her baby, and she didn’t notice the hunter who was watching her through his binoculars. When the shot rang out, she was running towards the river…”

  • to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action: “I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang.”

  • to express a change of mind: e.g. “I was going to spend the day at the beach but I’ve decided to go on an excursion instead.”

  • with ‘wonder’, to make a very polite request: e.g. “I was wondering if you could baby-sit for me tonight.”

More examples

  • They were waiting for the bus when the accident happened.
  • Caroline was skiing when she broke her leg.
  • When we arrived he was having a bath.
  • When the fire started I was watching television.

Note: with verbs not normally used in the continuous form, the simple past is used. See list in Present continuous

How to form the Past Continuous

The past continuous of any verb is composed of two parts : the past tense of the verb to be (was/were), and the base of the main verb +ing.

Interrogative negative

Example: to play, past continuous

was playingI was not playingWas I playing?
You were playingYou were not playingWere you playing?
He, she, it was playingShe wasn’t playingWas she playing?
We were playingWe weren’t playingWere we playing?
You were playingYou weren’t playingWere you playing?
They were playingThey weren’t playingWere they playing?