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Unit 5 The Past Continuous (Progressive) Tense



The past continuous tense is formed with the past tense of the auxiliary verb be + the present participle (the infinitive + ing).

Table 4

Affirmative Negative Interrogative
I was working I was not working was I working?
you were working you were not working were you working?
he/she/it was working he/she/it was not working was he/she/it working?
we were working we were not working were we working?
you were working you were not working were you working?
they were working they were not working were they working?

Main uses

1 to express an action which was in progress at a given moment in the past.

At eight he was having breakfast.

What were you doing at this time yesterday?


2 to express the activity which was in progress during a period of time in the past.

I was painting all day yesterday.

They were quarrelling the whole time they were together.

Often we don’t know whether the action was completed or not:

She was writing her essay last night.


3 The past continuous is often used to refer to a temporary situation.

He was working at home at the time.

Bill was using my office until I came back from America.


4 Parallel actions.We can emphasize the fact that two or more actions were in progress at the same time by using whileor at the time (that):

While I was working in the garden, my wife was cooking dinner.


5 The past progressive and the simple past are often used together in a sentence. The past progressive describes a situation or action in progress in the past, and the simple past describes a shorter action or event. The action or situation in progress is often introduced by conjunctions like when, as, just as, while:

Just as I was leaving the house the phone rang.

Jane met Frank Sinatra when she was living in Hollywood.

Or the shorter action can be introduced by when:

We were having supper when the phone rang.

We can often use the simple past to describe the action in progress, but the progressive puts more emphasis on the duration of the action, as in the second of these two examples:

While I fumbled for some money, my friend paid the fares.

While I was fumbling for some money, my friend paid the fares.

In the same way, still can emphasize duration:

Jim was talking to his girlfriend on the phone when I came in and was still talking to her when I went out an hour later.


6 Developing or changing situations in the past:

It was getting darker. The wind was rising.

The unemployment rate was increasing.


7 Repeated actions – criticism. (This use is similar to that of the present progressive).

When he worked here, Roger was always making mistakes.

He was always ringing me up.

She was noisy and brash and constantly trying to attract attention by any means.


8 Just as the present continuous can be used to express a definite future arrangement, the past continuous can express this sort of future in the past:

He was busy packing, for he was leaving that night. (The decision to leave had been made some time previously.)

Why didn’t you tell me you were starting?

He didn’t know how he could inform them that he was not coming.


9We use the past continuous tense in descriptions. Note the combination of description (past continuous) with narrative (simple past):

A wood fire was burning on the hearth, and a cat was sleeping in front of it. A girl was playing the piano and (was) singing softly to herself. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. The girl stopped playing. The cat woke up.



Ex. 29 Explain the use of the Past Continuous in the following sentences:

l. The front door of the house stood open. The maid was polish­ing the windows. 2. After a while he informed me that John was doing a transla­tion of some poems from Spanish. 3. I knew Harry was coming sometime on Monday. 4. You remember how he was always writing verses. 5. He glanced my way to see if I was listening. 6. By the time the month was up, Eric realized he was fighting a losing battle. 7. Roma said: "Hallo, everybody. We were passing and saw the light in the studio. We guessed you were having a party." 8. She stopped beside Tommy who was in a particularly scornful mood. He was leaving in the morning. 9. Well, I was taught not to interrupt when older people were talking. 10. He looked across the street to see if they were waiting. 11. "What were you doing in New York, Mr Brown?" "I was trying to find someone to buy my hotel," he replied truthfully. 12. It was raining when I left. 13. "This is his breakfast," Adeline said, indicating the tray with a bandaged finger. She was always suffering from a cut or a burn.


Ex. 30 Complete the conversation. Put in the past continuous forms:

Jessica: ... (I / look) for you, Vicky. I'm afraid I've broken this dish.

Vicky: Oh no! What ... (you / do)?

Jessica: ... (I / take) it into the kitchen. I bumped into Emma. ... (she / come) out just as ... (I /go) in.

Vicky: I expect it was your fault. ... (you / not / look) where ... (you/ go).

Jessica: Sorry. I'll buy you another one as soon as I have some money.

Ex. 31 Put the verbs in brackets into the past continuous tense. Explain the use of the forms:

1 Detective: I'm afraid I must ask you both what you (do) yesterday at 10.20 p.m. Mr X: I (play) chess with my wife. Mr Y: I (listen) to a play on the radio. 2 The children were frightened because it (get) dark. 3 It was a fine day and the roads were crowded because a lot of people (rush) to the seaside. 4 The airplane in which the football team (travel) crashed soon after taking off. 5 He usually wears sandals but when I last saw him he (wear) boots. 6 The house was in great disorder because he (redecorate) it. 7 The director didn't allow the actors to travel by air while they (work) on the film. 8 The car had nobody in it but the engine (run). 9 Two children (play) on the sand and two fishermen (lean) against an upturned boat. 10 I was alone in the house at that time because Mr Jones (work) in the garage and Mrs Jones (shop). 11 He said that he was the captain of a ship which (sail) that night for Marseilles. 12 Are you going to Rome? I thought that you (go) to Milan. 13 My wife and I (talk) about you the other day. 14 When I first met him he (study) painting. 15 There was a strong smell and the sound of frying. Obviously Mrs Jones (cook) fish. 16 Tom ate nothing for lunch because he (diet). He said that he (try) to lose 10 kilos. 17 Who you (talk) to on the telephone as I came in?
I (talk) to Mr Pitt. 18 As she (climb) the ladder it slipped sideways and she fell off it. 19 When I first met him he (work) in a restaurant. 20 He watched the children for a moment. Some of them (bathe) in the sea, others (look) for shells, others (play) in the sand. 21 Where he (live) when you saw him last? 22 She (stand) at the bus stop. I asked her what bus she (wait) for. 23 From the sounds it was clear that Mary (practise) the piano. 24 There had been an accident and men (carry) the injured people to an ambulance. 25 Two men (fight) at a street corner and a policeman (try) to stop them. - What they (fight) about? - Nobody seemed to know. 26 Tom (sit) in a corner with a book. I told him that he (read) in very bad light. 27 I went into the garden to see what the boys (do). James (weed) and Alexander (cut) the grass. 28 They had taken off the wheel of the car and (mend) the puncture. I asked when it would be ready. 29 When I arrived at the meeting the first speaker had just finished speaking and the audience (clap). 30 The traffic (make) so much noise that I couldn't hear what he (say). 31 While he (learn) to drive he had twenty-five accidents. 32 He had a bad fall while he (repair) his roof. 33 He was a little mad. He always (try) to prove that the earth was flat. 34 While we (fish) someone came to the house and left this note. 35 The exam had just begun and the candidates (write) their names at the top of their papers. 36 Just as I (wonder) what to do next, the phone rang.

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