When learning any language, studying the tenses is one of the most important lessons you can learn in grammar. Using them correctly means that you can share your ideas in a much clearer and more precise way.
To review, verbs come in three simple tenses: past, present, and future. But each of these also comes with a progressive form and a perfect form, giving us the following:
- simple past tense
- past progressive or past continuous tense
- past perfect tense
- simple present tense
- present progressive or present continuous tense
- present perfect tense
- simple future tense
- future progressive or future continuous tense
- future perfect tense
What Is the Difference Between Simple Past and Past Progressive?
The past tense refers to things that happened in, understandably, a time that has already passed.
Simple past describes something that already happened and has stopped happening. In the examples below, the underlined verb is in the simple past tense:
- She ate the last ice cream cone left in the fridge.
- David woke up late for school today and missed the bus.
- Shakespeare wrote the best plays in history.
- After a whole month of waiting, my books finally arrived in the mail.
- The seeds sprouted up overnight.
As you can see from the examples above, each action occurred in the past and each action was already completed by the time the sentence was written.
The past progressive tense, also known as past continuous tense, is made up of the past form of the verb “to be” plus the present participle, or the ‘-ing’ form of the verb.
Subject + past form of “to be” + present participle ( ‘-ing’) form of the verb
The boy + was + walking
The man + was + painting
How Do You Use the Past Progressive Tense
The past progressive tense can be used to:
1. Describe an action that was happening when another action interrupted.
In the examples below, the verbs in past progressive tense are set in bold, whereas the action that occurred is underlined:
- The children were doing their worksheets when the fire alarm went off.
- The teacher was showing an example on the board when Timmy slipped out of the room.
- She was walking her baby in the stroller when her cellphone rang.
- Sarah arrived just as her mother was setting the table for dinner.
2. Describe conditions that were true and ongoing during a specific time in the past.
In the examples below, the verb in past progressive tense is set in bold:
- Throughout the month of her convalescence, the birds were always singing outside her window.
- Through those golden days of childhood summers, the children were either frolicking in the woods or swimming in the lake.
- In David Copperfield’s mind, his mother was always cowering before his stepfather.
3. To describe an event that was happening at a specific time in the past.
- At 8 o’ clock last night, we were watching The Chosen on Netflix.
- At 11 this morning, the train was chugging laboriously through the town.
- At midnight, the bells were tolling a deathly toll.
4. To describe a planned action that was never fulfilled.
- I was planning to give my home office a makeover, but I got swamped with work.
- He was going to take his family for a long-overdue vacation, but his boss gave him an urgent project.
- She was thinking of applying to Harvard, but her boyfriend discouraged her.
5. To describe a habitual action in the past.
- She was always complaining about her mother.
- The teacher was constantly correcting our writing.
- When we were young, my brother and I were always arguing about who would get the biggest piece of pie.
6. To ask a question.
- What were you doing at the airport last night?
- Were you calling me?
- Why were you staying up so late?
7. To set the scene of a story told in past tense.
- I was absentmindedly walking down the road one sunny morning…
- The rain was falling steadily and the wind was howling in Captain Leary’s ears…
- The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows through the maple trees…
8. To show two actions that happened simultaneously in the past.
- Mr. Smith was washing the car while Mrs. Smith was baking cookies in the kitchen.
- The pianist’s fingers were flying over the keys while the singer’s voice was soaring through the opera hall.
9. To make a polite request.
- I was wondering if you could help me take this basket over to Ms. Miller’s on your way to town.
- She was wondering if you could give her a call.
- We were wondering if any of you could babysit today.
Past Progressive Tense Quiz:
To test your knowledge of the past progressive tense, try your hand at these sentences below. (You may also download our Past Progressive Tense PDF quiz.)
- I [was walking / walked] to the bus stop when the dog started chasing me.
- The girl arrived at the party just as the host [was giving / gave] the opening remarks.
- The olive-backed sunbird [built / was building] its nest on the tree beside my window. Today it already laid an egg.
- Throughout his stay at the hospital, he [was always eating / always ate] an apple whenever we visited him.
- I [wondered / was wondering] if you could help me out.
- The boys [always bickered / were always bickering] about something or other.
- “You said you called at 8:00 last night? Sorry, I think I [took / was taking] a shower.”
- While she [recovered / was recovering] from the difficult childbirth, her baby already reached important milestones.
- She [bicycled / was bicycling] past the old house when a large bulldog charged out of the gate and barked at her.
- The baby [cried / was crying] for his mother to pick him up.
- I was walking to the bus stop when the dog started chasing me.
- The girl arrived at the party just as the host was giving the opening remarks.
- The olive-backed sunbird built its nest on the tree beside my window. Today it already laid an egg.
- Throughout his stay at the hospital, he was always eating an apple whenever we visited him.
- I was wondering if you could help me out.
- The boys were always bickering about something or other.
- “You said you called at 8:00 last night? Sorry, I think I was taking a shower.”
- While she was recovering from the difficult childbirth, her baby already reached important milestones.
- She was bicycling past the old house when a large bulldog charged out of the gate and barked at her.
- The baby cried for his mother to pick him up.
Using the Past Progressive Tense
Now that you know how to use the past progressive tense, you will be able to give a clearer sense of order to the events you are writing about.
Continue to learn more grammar rules to improve your writing and everyday communication.
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