The past continuous, often called the past progressive, is formed with the words was or were (past forms of the verb to be) followed by the present participle (the verb in the -ing form).
Form: was/were + present participle
Read on for some tips on when to use this common tense, along with some helpful examples.
Tips for Using the Past Continuous
1. An Interrupted Action in the Past
In English, we use the past continuous to express that a longer action in the past was interrupted by another action. The past continuous expresses the longer action; the interrupting action is often expressed using the past simple.
The action doesn’t have to be an actual interruption; it can be an interruption in time.
“I was taking a shower when she called me.”
In this example, the longer action is taking a shower. The person started taking a shower first and was in the shower when the woman called. The call interrupted her shower (at least in regards to time). We show that the shower started first by using the past continuous.
You could also change the order of the actions in the sentence and it would still have the same meaning.
“She called me when I was taking a shower.”
2. An Action in Progress at a Specific Time in the Past
We can also express that an action was in progress at a specific time in the past.
“At 4:00 pm yesterday Kate was still driving.”
In this example, Kate started driving some time before 4:00 pm, and at 4:00 pm she was driving.
If we use the past simple tense, then this might mean that at 4:00 pm Kate got in her car and started driving.
“At 4:00 pm yesterday, Kate drove.”
So, if you want to be clear that an action was already taking place, use the past continuous in this kind of situation.
3. Parallel Actions
We can also talk about two actions happening at the same time in the past.
“When she was cooking, her son was playing a video game.”
This means that at a certain time in the past, she was cooking and her son was playing a video game – at the same time. Because both verbs are expressed in the past continuous, we know they were happening simultaneously.
If we use the past tense, then the time relationship between the two actions is not as clear.
“She cooked when her son was playing a video game.”
This sentence could mean that she started cooking while her son was playing a video game.
English speakers also use the past continuous when they are describing a scene, the atmosphere, or what was happening in the background of a particular event.
For example, let’s imagine a man walks into his office and describes what he saw.
“Mike and Amy were working on their computers, Christine was yelling at somebody on the phone, and Victor was making copies.”
Were working, was yelling, and was making are the past continuous tense. All of these events started taking place before the man walks into the office; they are in progress when he walks in. We know this because they are expressed in the past continuous.
Hopefully these tips will help you better describe the past and make you sound more fluent.