Learning English as a second language in India can be tricky, especially with tenses like the past continuous. Confusion often arises between the past simple and past continuous, or when using auxiliary verbs and present participles.

Mastering the past continuous is crucial because it's commonly used in daily and professional conversations to describe ongoing past actions. Incorrect usage can lead to misunderstandings.

This blog post aims to clarify the past continuous tense with examples and exercises. Whether it's understanding 'was/were' as auxiliary verbs or adding '-ing' to main verbs, we'll cover it all.

Ready to improve your English skills for personal and professional growth? This blog post on the past continuous tense will boost your confidence in using it correctly!

What is Past Continuous Tense?

Ever wondered how you can express actions that were ongoing in the past? This is where the past continuous tense comes into play.

The past continuous tense, often also called the past progressive tense, allows us to talk about past events that were in progress at a certain moment in time. It is used to express actions or situations that were ongoing or 'continuous' in the past.

This tense is formed using was/were + present participle (the verb ending in -ing). For instance, "I was playing cricket when it started raining." Here, 'was playing' represents the past continuous tense.

The purpose of this tense in spoken English is to indicate interrupted actions, parallel or simultaneous actions, and atmospheric conditions in the past. Let's explore some common verbs often used in this tense:

  1. Working: He was working when I called him.

  2. Playing: They were playing board games all evening.

  3. Reading: I was reading a novel during my train journey.

  4. Cooking: She was cooking dinner when you arrived.

  5. Writing: We were writing our assignments till late night.

How to Formulate Past Continuous Tense

Let's dive right into the structure of past continuous tense, which consists of two parts.

  • The first part is an auxiliary verb—either "was" or "were", used according to the subject.

  • The second part is the main verb, which takes a present participle form ending with "-ing".

  • This combination gives us the standard formula: Subject + was/were + present participle verb -ing.

Confused? Let's break it down with some examples:

  • I was eating samosa when she called.

  • They were playing cricket until it started raining.

  • You were studying English when I visited you last.

Each of these sentences highlights a past ongoing action, captured by the past continuous tense formula.

To make things easier for you, here's a table comparing the subject and the auxiliary verb usage in past continuous tense:


Auxiliary Verb







Now that we've got that covered, let's look at how to use our main verbs in their present participle form:

  • work -> working

  • play -> playing

  • study -> studying

Even irregular verbs follow this rule in the past continuous tense:

  • go -> going

  • do -> doing

  • see -> seeing

As you can see, adding "-ing" to our main verb is pretty simple! But remember, spelling changes might occur with certain verbs. Fear not. There are many online resources that can help you with regular and irregular verbs transformed into their present participle forms for your convenience.

When Do We Use Past Continuous Tense?

The past progressive tense comes in handy in several scenarios. Let's delve into some situations where the past continuous tense is most aptly used.

1. Actions Happening at a Specific Time in the Past:

If you're describing an action that was happening at a particular time in the past, the past continuous tense is your go-to. Suppose you're narrating a story about your last visit to Kolkata. Example:

A: "What were you doing at 8 pm yesterday?"

B: "I was watching the cricket match on television."

2. Two Actions Occurring Simultaneously in the Past:

When two actions were occurring at the same time in the past, we use this tense for both actions. The present participle form of both main verbs is used to denote overlapping action. Example:

A: "What happened when you met Rekha last week?"

B: "We were discussing her new book while sipping on Darjeeling tea."

3. Actions Interrupted by Other Actions or Events:

When an ongoing action in the past was interrupted by another event or action, we use the past continuous tense for the action that was already happening and simple past tense for the action that interrupted it. Example:

A: "Why didn't you answer my call yesterday?"

B: "Sorry! I was taking a shower when you called."

Advanced Usage of Past Continuous Tense

Let's dive deeper into the past continuous tense and explore its advanced applications. This tense is not just for describing actions in progress, it can also be used for polite expressions, reported speech, and hypothetical scenarios.

a. For polite expressions, the past continuous tense softens requests or questions. Here's an example of a situation you might encounter at work:

  • Simple past: "You took my pen."

  • Past continuous (polite): "I believe you were using my pen."

The past continuous form shows respect and avoids direct confrontation.

b. In reported speech, this tense maintains the original speaker’s verb tense when quoting indirectly. Suppose your colleague was complaining about a difficult client.

  • Direct speech: He said, "The client is being difficult."

  • Reported speech: He said that the client was being difficult.

c. Finally, in hypothetical situations or second conditionals, the past continuous is used to express an unreal situation in the present.

  • If I were living in Mumbai (but I'm not), I would go to Marine Drive every evening.

These are more advanced uses of the past continuous tense. You can also form a negative sentence and a negative interrogative sentence using this tense. For instance:

Negative sentence:

  • The music wasn't playing when I entered the room.

  • I was not studying when the phone rang.

Negative interrogative sentence:

  • Wasn't it snowing yesterday when we went for a walk?

  • Were you not working yesterday?

Common Mistakes When Using Past Continuous Tense

When non-native English speakers use the past continuous tense, certain errors often creep in. Here are a few common mistakes and how to correct them:

1. Incorrect Positioning of Auxiliary Verb

Incorrect: I was not knowing where he was.

Correct: I did not know where he was.

Explanation: The auxiliary verb 'was' should be placed before the main verb in its present participle form - 'knowing'. However, 'know' is a stative verb, which means it does not usually use in the continuous form. Hence the correct sentence is "I did not know where he was."

2. Wrong Form of Present Participle

Incorrect: He was runing when I saw him.

Correct: He was running when I saw him.

Explanation: The main verb's present participle form must end with '-ing'. In this example, 'run' becomes 'running', not 'runing'.

3. Misuse of Time Clauses

Incorrect: While I was watch TV, she arrived.

Correct: While I was watching TV, she arrived.

Explanation: In a time clause starting with ‘while’, ensure you're using a sentence in the past continuous tense appropriately.

4. Incorrect Use of Past Continuous with Adverbs

Incorrect: He always was playing cricket on Sundays.

Correct: He was always playing cricket on Sundays.

Explanation: Adverbs such as always, often, and sometimes should be positioned between the auxiliary verb and main verb in past continuous sentences.

Remember that continual practice is key to mastering English grammar. For more information about common English grammar mistakes and how to avoid them, check out our Clapingo blogs!

Past Continuous Tense: Exercises for Practice

Here are some exercises to test your understanding of the tense.

Exercise 1:

Rewrite the following sentences in past continuous tense using the given clues.

  1. She reads a book. (Clue: Yesterday at 5 pm)

  2. The dog barks. (Clue: Last night at 8 pm)

  3. They play football. (Clue: Sunday morning)

  4. He eats an apple. (Clue: This morning at 9 am)

  5. I write an email. (Clue: Yesterday evening)

Exercise 2:

Change these sentences into past continuous tense.

  1. We did our homework.

  2. She sang a song.

  3. They ran to catch the bus.

  4. I painted a picture.

  5. He cooked dinner.

Exercise 3:

Make sentences in past continuous tense using the following words:

  1. She - read - novel

  2. Children - play - park

  3. I - write - letter

  4. Birds - sing - morning

  5. He - eat - lunch


Exercise 1:

  1. She was reading a book yesterday at 5 pm.

  2. The dog was barking last night at 8 pm.

  3. They were playing football on Sunday morning.

  4. He was eating an apple this morning at 9 am.

  5. I was writing an email yesterday evening.

Exercise 2:

  1. We were doing our homework.

  2. She was singing a song.

  3. They were running to catch the bus.

  4. I was painting a picture.

  5. He was cooking dinner.

Exercise 3:

  1. She was reading a novel.

  2. The children were playing in the park.

  3. I was writing a letter.

  4. The birds were singing in the morning.

  5. He was eating lunch.

Comparing Past Continuous Tense with Other Tenses

Understanding the nuances of different English tenses can be tricky, especially for non-native English speakers in India. Let's compare the past continuous tense with the simple past tense and the present perfect progressive tense to clarify their differences. (You can also get a quick understanding of these different tenses in these Clapingo videos.)

  • The past continuous tense (or past progressive) is used to describe an ongoing action that took place in the past. It uses the formula: subject + was/were (auxiliary verb) + present participle (main verb ending in -ing). For example, “I was reading a book.”

  • The simple past tense indicates a completed action or event that took place in the past. The formula here is: subject + main verb (in its past form). For example, “I read a book.”

  • The present perfect progressive tense describes an action that started in the past and is still continuing or has only recently finished. The formula is: subject + have/has (auxiliary verb) + been + present participle (main verb -ing). An example of this could be, “I have been reading a book.”

Here's a comparison table to help you understand better.





Past Continuous

Subject + was/were + present participle

Describes an ongoing action that took place in the past

"I was reading a book"

Simple Past

Subject + main verb (past form)

Indicates a completed action or event that took place in the past

"I read a book"

Present Perfect Progressive

Subject + have/has been + present participle

Describes an action that started in the past and is still going on or recently finished

"I have been reading a book"

Understanding these differences will help you communicate more effectively in English, whether you're narrating a story, describing an event, or discussing your experiences.

To Sum Up

In our learning journey about the past continuous tense, we've covered a lot. We started with its definition as a tense for ongoing actions in the past. Then looked at its structure as 'was/were + present participle (main verb -ing)' like in "I was sleeping when he arrived."

We also learned its uses: describing ongoing actions in the past, parallel or simultaneous past actions, or background settings in stories. We discussed common mistakes to avoid, like confusing it with the simple past tense.

The exercises provided are great for practicing and improving your understanding.

Comparing it with other tenses helped us understand it better, showing how versatile English can be. Mastering this tense isn't just about grammar; it's about expressing yourself confidently.

And don't forget, Clapingo is here to help. If you want to improve your English skills beyond the past continuous tense, our personalized coaching can guide you. Our native English speakers make learning easier with practical scenarios.

Keep going! Your English journey is progressing, and we're here to support you with easy-to-understand content and tailored coaching sessions!


1. What is the formula for past continuous tense?

The structure of the past continuous tense is very simple. The formula uses the subject (like 'I', 'you', 'he', etc.), followed by the auxiliary verb 'was' or 'were' (based on the subject), and a present participle which is the base form of the main verb plus 'ing'. For example, "I was studying."

2. When should I use past progressive tense?

Past continuous tense is used to describe an action that was in progress at a certain time in the past. For example, "At 8 pm yesterday, I was watching a movie." It can also be used for two simultaneous actions in the past, such as, "While he was cooking, she was cleaning."

3. Can you provide some examples of sentences in past continuous tense?

Here are some examples:

  • While the teacher entered the classroom, the students were working on their assignments.

  • The guests arrived at the party while we were preparing the snacks.

  • I was helping with decorations at my cousin's wedding when the power went out.

  • Everything was going well yesterday until I realized I had forgotten my wallet at home.

4. What is a common mistake non-native English speakers make with past continuous tense?

A common mistake made by learners, particularly those who speak English as a second language in India, is confusion between simple past and past continuous tense. Remember: Past continuous emphasizes an ongoing action or event that was happening at a specific time in the past. For example, "I was reading" indicates that reading was an action that continued over time; it's not just something I did once and completed.