The past continuous form
We use the past continuous
Actions in progress
We use the past continuous to talk about actions that were in progress (not finished) at a specific moment in the past.
- ‘What were you doing at 9?’ ‘I was studying.’
- When I saw them yesterday, they were arguing.
The specific moment in the past can be described by a time expression (at 9 a.m., at midday, at lunchtime, all morning, all day, etc.):
- They were swimming at 7 in the morning..
- At midday they were still working.
Or by a simple past sentence:
- They were swimming when I saw them.
- When she arrived, they were still working.
Describing a scene
We often use the past continuous at the beginning of a story to describe the situation.
- It was getting dark, and I was walking fast. Suddenly …
Past simple vs past continuous
We use the past simple for completed actions in the past, and we use the past continuous for actions in progress (not finished) in the past.
- We ate out yesterday. (the action is finished)
- We were eating at 9. (the action was not finished)
The past continuous describes a longer action or situation and the past simple describes a shorter action or event.
- When I met Susan she was having a drink at a terrace with a friend.
- We didn’t go out because it was raining.
The short action in past simple often interrupts the longer action in past continuous.
- He was playing football when he broke his arm.
- When I went to bed, it was raining.
We use the past simple for completed actions that happened one after the other. Compare:
- When he arrived, she was having a shower.
- When he arrived, she had a shower.
(The action of having a shower started before he arrived)
(The action of having a shower started after he arrived)