Saturday, 9 April 2011


How do we make the Past Continuous Tense?

The structure of the past continuous tense is:
(+) S + was/were + V1-ing + O
(-) S + was/were + not + V1-ing + O
(?) Was/Were + S + V1-ing + O

For negative sentences in the past continuous tense, we insert not between the auxiliary verb and main verb. For question sentences, we exchange the subject and auxiliary verb. Look at these example sentences with the past continuous tense:
subject auxiliary verb
main verb
+ I was watching TV.
+ You were working hard.
- He, she, it was not helping Mary.
- We were not joking.
? Were you being silly?
? Were they playing football?

How do we use the Past Continuous Tense?

The past continuous tense expresses action at a particular moment in the past. The action started before that moment but has not finished at that moment. For example, yesterday I watched a film on TV. The film started at 7pm and finished at 9pm.
At 8pm yesterday, I was watching TV.
past present future

At 8pm, I was in the middle of watching TV.
When we use the past continuous tense, our listener usually knows or understands what time we are talking about. Look at these examples:
  • I was working at 10pm last night.
  • They were not playing football at 9am this morning.
  • What were you doing at 10pm last night?
  • What were you doing when he arrived?
  • She was cooking when I telephoned her.
  • We were having dinner when it started to rain.
  • Ram went home early because it was snowing.
We often use the past continuous tense to "set the scene" in stories. We use it to describe the background situation at the moment when the action begins. Often, the story starts with the past continuous tense and then moves into the simple past tense. Here is an example:
" James Bond was driving through town. It was raining. The wind was blowing hard. Nobody was walking in the streets. Suddenly, Bond saw the killer in a telephone box..."

Past Continuous Tense + Simple Past Tense

We often use the past continuous tense with the simple past tense. We use the past continuous tense to express a long action. And we use the simple past tense to express a short action that happens in the middle of the long action. We can join the two ideas with when or while.
In the following example, we have two actions:
  1. long action (watching TV), expressed with past continuous tense
  2. short action (telephoned), expressed with simple past tense
past present future
Long action.
I was watching TV at 8pm.


You telephoned at 8pm.
Short action.
We can join these two actions with when:
  • I was watching TV when you telephoned.
(Notice that "when you telephoned" is also a way of defining the time [8pm].)
We use:
  • when + short action (simple past tense)
  • while + long action (past continuous tense)
There are four basic combinations:
I was walking past the car when it exploded.
When the car exploded I was walking past it.
The car exploded while I was walking past it.
While I was walking past the car it exploded.
Notice that the long action and short action are relative.
  • "Watching TV" took a few hours. "Telephoned" took a few seconds.
  • "Walking past the car" took a few seconds. "Exploded" took a few milliseconds.


Verb Meanings with Continuous Tenses

There are some verbs that we do not normally use in the continuous tense. And there are other verbs that we use in the simple tense with one meaning and in the continuous tense with another meaning.
In this lesson we look at various uses of continuous tenses, followed by a quiz to check your understanding: 
Verbs not Used with Continuous Tenses
There are some verbs that we do not normally use with continuous tenses. We usually use the following verbs with simple tenses only (not continuous tenses):
  • hate, like, love, need, prefer, want, wish
  • believe, imagine, know, mean, realize, recognize, remember, suppose, understand
  • belong, concern, consist, contain, depend, involve, matter, need, owe, own, possess
  • appear, resemble, seem,
  • hear, see
Here are some examples:
I want a coffee. not I am wanting a coffee.
I don't believe you are right. not I am not believing you are right.
Does this pen belong to you? not Is this pen belonging to you?
It seemed wrong. not It was seeming wrong.
I don't hear anything. not I am not hearing anything.
Notice that we often use can + see/hear:
  • I can see someone in the distance.
    (not I am seeing someone in the distance.)
  • I can't hear you very well.
    (not I am not hearing you very well.)
Some verbs have two different meanings or senses. For one sense we must use a simple tense. For the other sense we can use a continuous or simple tense.
For example, the verb to think has two different senses:
  1. to believe, to have an opinion
    I think red is a sexy colour.
  2. to reflect, to use your brain to solve a problem
    I am thinking about my homework.
In sense 1 there is no real action, no activity. This sense is called "stative". In sense 2 there is a kind of action, a kind of activity. This sense is called "dynamic".
When we use the stative sense, we use a simple tense. When we use the dynamic sense, we can use a simple or continuous tense, depending on the situation.
Look at the examples in the table below:
Stative sense
(no real action)
Dynamic sense
(a kind of action)
Simple only Continuous Simple
I think she is beautiful. Be quiet. I'm thinking. I will think about this problem tomorrow.
I don't consider that he is the right man for the job. We are considering your job application and will give you our answer in a few days. We consider every job application very carefully.
This table measures 4 x 6 feet. She is measuring the room for a new carpet. A good carpenter measures his wood carefully.
Does the wine taste good? I was tasting the wine when I dropped the glass. I always taste wine before I drink it.
Mary has three children. Please phone later. We are having dinner now. We have dinner at 8pm every day.

Be and Continuous Tenses

The verb be can be an auxiliary verb (Marie is learning English) or a main verb (Marie is French). On this page we look at the verb be as a main verb.
Usually we use simple tenses with the verb be as a main verb. For example, we say:
  • London is the capital of the UK.
    (not London is being the capital of the UK.)
  • Is she beautiful?
    (not Is she being beautiful?)
  • Were you late?
    (not Were you being late?)
Sometimes, however, we can use the verb be with a continuous tense. This is when the real sense of the verb be is "act" or "behave". Also, of course, the action is temporary. Compare the examples in the table below:
Mary is a careful person. (Mary is always careful - it's her nature.) John is being careful. (John is acting carefully now, but maybe he is not always careful - we don't know.)
Is he always so stupid? (Is that his personality?) They were being really stupid. (They were behaving really stupidly at that moment.)
Andrew is not usually selfish. (It is not Andrew's character to be selfish.) Why is he being so selfish? (Why is he acting so selfishly at the moment?)
Notice that we also make a difference between "to be sick" and "to be being sick":
  • She is sick (= she is not well)
  • She is being sick (= she is vomiting)

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