The Past Continuous Tense

How to form the past continuous:
The past continuous is formed by using was/were + verb -ing.

Remember the simple past of be:
I was
You were
He/she/it was
We were

They were

When to use to past continuous:
The past continuous tense is used to express an action that was in progress in the past:
  • I was sleeping.
  • They were working in the office.
  • Julie was listening to music.

The past continuous action often occurs at the time of another past action. If the other past action occurs in an instant (a quick action), it will be expressed using the simple past:
  • I was sleeping when you called.
  • Julie was studying when her parents came home.

If both of the actions were in progress at the same time, they will both be expressed using the past continuous:
  • While you were working in the office, I was planning our vacation.

The past continuous action can also be in progress at a specific time (rather than at the time of another past action):
  • He was working in the evening.
  • At 8am they were waiting for the bus.

The past continuous can also be used for action that happen in an instant if the action happened repeatedly. For example, it only takes an instant to call someone’s name, but if you do it repeatedly, it can be considered an action in progress.
  • I was calling your name, but you didn’t hear me.
Using when and while:
While is used with actions that are in progress, so you can use while with the past continuous.
When is used with actions that happen in an instant, so you can use it with the simple past.
This means that you could write the same sentence in different ways:
  • I was sleeping when you called. OR
    • You called while I was sleeping.
  • Julie was studying when her parents came home. OR
    • Julie’s parents came home while she was studying.

To use the past continuous in a question, simply invert the subject and the verb was/were:
  • Was Julie studying when her parents came home?
  • Were you sleeping when I called?

To use the past continuous in the negative, use wasn’t/weren’t:
  • Julie wasn’t studying when her parents came home.

Intermediate tip:
Remember that stative verbs are not used in the continuous tense. Stative verbs express a state – not an action. Since there is no action in progress, the past continuous should not be used. Here are some categories of stative verbs:
  • Mental states – think, understand, believe, doubt, know, prefer, remember, want
  • Emotional states – like, love, hate
  • Senses – see, hear, smell, taste, feel, seem, sound
  • Possession – have, own, possess
  • Communication – agree, disagree, mean, promise
  • Other states – be, need, owe, cost, depend, matter

Instead of using the past continuous, use the simple past:
  • I had a horse when I was a child. NOT: I was having a horse when I was a child. (Possession is not considered an action.)
  • The flowers smelled good. NOT: The flowers were smelling good. (In this case, smell expresses a state of the flowers and not an action that the flowers did.)

However, some stative verbs have alternate meanings that are considered actions. In that case, the past continuous can be used:
  • I was having a good time at the party. (In this case, have means something like experience, not possession.)
  • Sam was smelling the flowers when a bee flew in his face. (In this case, smelling is an action that Sam was doing.)

Advanced tip:
Sometimes the past continuous is used to express hopes and suggestions in the past or present. In both of the following examples, the speaker could be talking about the past OR the speaker could be making a present/future request.
  • I was thinking we could watch a movie.
  • I was hoping you would help me with my homework.
The speaker could also say “Let’s watch a movie” or “Please help me with my homework.” But by using the past continuous, the suggestion seems more polite because it is indirect and therefore not demanding.