Past Progressive Tense | Uses, Examples & Worksheet

The past progressive tense is a verb form used to refer to an action that was ongoing at a time in the past.

The past progressive is formed using the past tense of the auxiliary verb “be” (i.e., “was/were”) along with the present participle (“ing” form) of a main verb (e.g., “I was thinking”).

Past Progressive Tense Forms

How to use the past progressive tense

The past progressive tense (also called the past continuous) is formed using “was/were” and the present participle form of the main verb (e.g., “I was singing”).

The past progressive tense is used to refer to an ongoing past action that was interrupted by another past action (in the simple past tense) or to two past actions that were taking place at the same time.

It can also be used to indicate that something was habitual (usually in a critical way).

Examples: The past continuous tense
I was sleeping when the alarm went off.

While John was cooking dinner, Mary was cleaning the house.

David was always complaining about something.

Note
In the past progressive, the conjunctions “while” and “when” are commonly used to introduce a subordinate clause that provides additional context to the action described in the main clause.

  • “While” is typically used before a past progressive form to indicate that two actions were taking place simultaneously (e.g., “I was gardening while it was raining”).
  • “When” is typically used before a past simple form to indicate that this action interrupted another ongoing action (e.g., “Jean was reading when the phone rang”).

It’s important to note that only one of these conjunctions is typically used in a sentence. Using both conjunctions in the same sentence will confuse your meaning.

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Past simple vs. past continuous

Both the past simple and past continuous are used to talk about past action. However, they have different functions:

  • The past simple is used to indicate that an action was completed in the past.
  • The past continuous is used to emphasize that an action was ongoing in the past. Sentences that use the past continuous often contain a clause in the past simple to indicate that the ongoing action was interrupted by another action.
Examples: Past simple vs. past continuous
I cycled home from work yesterday.

I was cycling home from work when I fell off my bike.

Note
Most stative verbs (e.g., “know,” “want,” or “love”) cannot be used in the past continuous tense (with the exception of “be”). The simple past or past perfect tense is used instead.

  • I was wanting to go home.
  • I wanted to go home.
  • I had wanted to go home.

How to form negatives

In the past continuous, negative statements are formed by adding the adverb “not” after the auxiliary verb “was/were.” This is often contracted (e.g., “wasn’t/weren’t”).

Examples: Negative past continuous sentences
They were not working when I called.

John felt that he wasn’t reaching his full potential.

How to form questions

To ask a yes–no question using the past continuous, put “was/were” before the subject of the sentence, followed by the present participle of the main verb.

Examples: Past continuous tense questions
Was Tom exercising when he hurt his back?

Were you studying when the power went out?

To ask a question starting with a wh-word (an interrogative pronoun like “who” or an interrogative adverb like “when”), follow the same order as above, but add the pronoun or adverb at the start of the sentence.

Examples: Past continuous tense questions
Where was Anthony going when you saw him?

What were you expecting?

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How to form the passive voice

Passive constructions are ones in which the subject of the sentence is acted upon, rather than performing the action.

Passive sentences in the past continuous tense are formed using a subject, the auxiliary verbs “was/were” and “being,” along with the past participle of the main verb.

Examples: Past continuous passive constructions
The report was being reviewed by a panel of experts.

The guests were being served when a fire broke out in the kitchen.

The suspect was being questioned by the police when another bank was robbed.

Worksheet: Past progressive tense

Practice using the past progressive correctly with the exercises below. In the blank space in each sentence, fill in the correct past progressive form based on the subject and verb specified (e.g., “[he / walk]” becomes “he was walking”). Some answers may also be negative statements, questions, or passive constructions.

  1. __________ [I / cook] when you called.
  2. __________ [they / sunbathe] while I was setting up the grill.
  3. __________ [you / not / work] yesterday.
  4. __________ [The bank / rob] when the police arrived on the scene.
  5. What __________ [you / do] this morning?
  1. I was cooking when you called.
    • The past progressive is formed using the past tense of “be” (i.e., “was/were”) and the present participle (“ing” form) of a main verb. In this instance, the past progressive is used to refer to an ongoing past action that was interrupted by another action.
  1. They were sunbathing while I was setting up the grill.
    • In this instance, the past progressive is used to refer to two actions that were taking place at the same time in the past.
  1. You were not working yesterday.
    • In the past progressive, negative statements are formed by adding “not” after “was/were.”
  1. The bank was being robbed when the police arrived on the scene.
    • Passive sentences in the past progressive are formed using a subject (“the bank”), the auxiliary verbs “was/were” and “being,” along with the past participle of the main verb (“robbed”).
  1. What were you doing this morning?
    • To ask a question starting with a wh-word, add the wh-word at the start of the sentence, followed by “was/were,” the subject of the sentence (“you”), and the present participle of the main verb (e.g., “doing”).

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    Frequently asked questions about the past progressive tense

    What is the past continuous tense?

    The past continuous tense (also called the past progressive) is a verb form used to refer to an action that was ongoing at a time in the past (e.g., “I was walking when I fell”).

    The past continuous is formed using the past tense of the auxiliary verb “be” (i.e., “was/were”) along with the present participle (“ing” form) of a main verb (e.g., “You were swimming”).

    What are some examples of the past continuous tense?

    The past continuous tense (also called the past progressive) is a verb form used to describe an action that was ongoing at a time in the past (e.g., “I was singing,” “you were eating,” “they were playing”).

    Sources in this article

    We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

    This Scribbr article

    Ryan, E. (2023, October 23). Past Progressive Tense | Uses, Examples & Worksheet. Scribbr. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/verbs/past-progressive/

    Sources

    Aarts, B. (2011). Oxford modern English grammar. Oxford University Press.

    Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015). Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

    Garner, B. A. (2016). Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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    Eoghan Ryan

    Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.