Past continuous: Time markers & examples

Past continuous, what does that even mean? Well, you may otherwise know it as the verb tense titled past progressive. Does that ring any bells for you now? No? Maybe? Allow me to elaborate a little more. In other words, these are time markers. They are used in a past action when something was interrupted, or two actions were happening at the same time. The past continuous’ are formed by using was/were, and adding a present participle. I know this is confusing, so bear with me here. However, it’s like I always say, the best way to learn is by doing. So, let’s go over an example right here, right now, in this introduction paragraph. Ready?

EXAMPLE:

I was cooking dinner when she called.

This past continuous indicated that a long action in the past was interrupted by a shorter action.

When to use the past continuous tense?

Ah, when can we use past continuous tense? That is the question here. Well, in short, past continuous, or past progressive tense, can be used when an action of the past overlaps another action, time, or time frame. However, the action of the past typically starts before the other action or time. Americans actually unknowing use past continuous sense quite often, in my opinion. Also, past continuous is often used when we tell stories and give background information about someone/something/or some event. If it’s still a little unclear for you, don’t worry. We are about to go into more detail and I will give you plenty of past continuous examples. Fear not, just keep on reading.
How To Make Long Sentences In English

Interrupted action in the past

Okay so the first type of continuous past tenses we are going to look at is the one that has an interrupted past action. Yes, I gave you this type of example in the introduction, so it may look familiar. Like I mentioned in the introduction, this type of past continuous indicated that a longer action, that occurred in the past, was interrupted by a shorter action. Now, let’s look at some past continuous tense examples…

EXAMPLES:

  • While we were walking home, it began to thunder.
  • While I was playing outside, Jeff was taking a nap.
  • My driver was waiting for me when we got off the plane.
  • Whilst writing this post, my laptop suddenly died.
  • What were you doing when 9/11 happened?

Specific time as an interruption

This type of continuous past tense is the type that is interrupted by a short action in the simple past, or sometimes, it is a specific time interruption. I will say, it is important to remember that sometimes, in the simple past, an exact time is used to show when something, such as an action, begins and ends. In a past continuous, however, that exact time only interrupts the action.

EXAMPLES:

  • I’m so jet-lagged! Last night, at 11 PM, I was up and super awake!
  • This time last week, I was sitting at the nail salon with my mother-in-law. Now, I’m 7,000 miles away.
  • Even after 4 hours, so at midnight, we were still taxing on the runway, waiting for permission to take off.
  • This morning, around 5 AM, I was awoken from a car alarm going off outside.
  • Around this time yesterday, I was running around doing errands, so I couldn’t have been the one who left the door open for the dog to get out.

How To Make Long Sentences In English

Parallel actions

This one is easier to comprehend, I promise! So, parallel actions. This type of past continuous is used with two actions in the same sentence, and, as you may have guessed with the word “parallel” in the name, this type of tense suggests that both actions are occurring simultaneously.

EXAMPLES:

  • I was bathing the dog while he was cleaning up the mess.
  • When my dad was reading, my mom was cooking.
  • We had just moved to a new country, Davis wasn’t working, and I wasn’t either.
  • They were traveling for work, meeting their customers, and having a great time.
  • Were you listening while I was talking to you?

Atmosphere

Ok, so this one is mainly used when you are telling a story and it needs kind of a setting and, welp, atmosphere. You almost need to set the scene a little bit and make it crystal clear to your audience, so that they can better understand you. I know these past continuous exercises can be tricky, but you’re doing so great and you’re almost done! Let’s look into some examples of the past continuous form “atmosphere.”

EXAMPLE:

  • When I walked into the store, several employees were hurriedly working, some were sluggish, and the boss was yelling at the lazy, sluggish employees, all the while the customers were waiting to be assisted. One employee was yelling at the boss and quit right then and there. That’s when I heard that the customers were always complaining and that this job is extremely stressful.

Repetition and irritation with “always”

This type of past continuous tense suggests that something irritating, or shocking, happened often in the past. We use “always” or “constantly” to express this type of continuous past tense. Remember though, you need to put the words ‘always” or “constantly” between “be” and your verb, then add -ing.

EXAMPLES:

  • He was always coming into work late.
  • Amy was constantly yelling. She wasn’t a good friend.
  • I didn’t really enjoy trips with my family because they were always so annoying.
  • Growing up, my mom was constantly badgering me to keep my hair long and never cut it.
  • Jo was always coming to work 3 hours early. She loved working!

Tips to understand Past Continuous better

Now that you know the different types of past continuous tenses, and you’re no longer wondering the past continuous tense definition, let’s try to see if there are any kinds of tips and tricks we can use to better understand and spot these past continuous’.

  1. Non-continuous us verbs can’t be used in continuous s tenses.
  2. Certain non-continuous meanings, typically for mixed verbs, cannot be used in continuous tenses
  • So, instead of using the past continuous tense with thee verbs, you need to use simple past. I know, confusing, but this is supposed to be a tip. It’s not supposed to confuse you even more, so let me give you an example.

EXAMPLE:

  • INCORRECT: Henry was being at school when his mother called.
  • CORRECT: Henry was at school when his mother called.

To sum up, past continuous, or past progressive, is used in many different ways of which I discussed here in this post. From parallel to atmosphere to the repetition of always, and more, past continuous verbs, are extremely common. I bet you have used these before without even realizing it, haven’t you? Yeah, I knew it! You can now go out and use them again, but now, you have a better understanding of them, and maybe, just maybe, you can spot them when your friends use them now too!

How To Make Long Sentences In English

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