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The Past Progressive Tense

Spelling Tip

Verbing (Present Participle)

  • Add ing to most verbs. Ex. play > playing, cry > crying, bark > barking
  • For verbs that end in e, remove the e and add ing. Ex: slide > sliding, ride > riding
  • For verbs that end in ie, change the ie to y and add ing. Ex: die > dying, tie > tying
  • For a verb whose last syllable is written with a consonant-vowel-consonant and is stressed, double the last letter before adding ing. Ex: beg > begging, begin > beginning. However: enter > entering (last syllable is not stressed)

The past progressive tense is difficult for many non-native speakers to master because many languages don’t have an equivalent.

The past progressive describes an action that was in progress at a specific time in the past. It can be used:

To describe an action that started in the past and was interrupted by another action:

  1. He was writing an e-mail when the phone rang.
  2. When the phone rang, he was writing an e-mail.
  3. While he was writing an e-mail, the phone rang

To describe two actions that were in progress at the same time in the past:

  1. I was preparing dinner while Melanie was working upstairs.
  2. While Melanie was working upstairs, I was preparing dinner

Note: The word order in the sentence can be switched around as in the examples above, however, it is important to remember that we use the time expression while before the past progressive and the word when before the past simple part of the sentence. Use only one of these time expressions in each sentence.

The past progressive is formed using was or were and the ing (present participle) form of the verb.

Subject a form of be + verbing rest of sentence
I / He / She / It was finishing the exam when the bell rang
You / We / They were paying the bill while I was waiting to be seated

Negatives in the Past Progressive (Continuous)

Spelling Tip

When shortening the 1st & 3rd person (I, he, she, it) negative, just remove the o in not and add an apostrophe (‘)
was not > wasn’t
were not > weren’t

The negative in the past progressive tense is created using was not or were not + the ing (present participle) form of the verb.

Note: In general, use these contractions in the negative: wasn’t, weren’t. Save the long forms for when you want to create emphasis.

Subject a form of be + verbing rest of sentence
I /He / She / It wasn’t crying when you came home
You / We / They weren’t hiking there when the earthquake hit
  1. I wasn’t sleeping when you came home last night.
  2. When Ms. Foster came in, the girls weren’t studying.
  3. Sam wasn’t lying when he said he loved you.

Yes/No Questions in the Past Progressive (Continuous)

To ask a question that will be answered with either a yes or no, start with Was or Were, (Wasn’t or Weren’t for a negative question) then choose your subject (the person or thing doing the action), followed by the ing (present participle) form of the verb and then the rest of your question.

A form of Be subject verbing rest of sentence
Was I walking too fast
Was he / she / it shouting while you were trying to sleep
Were you / we / they waiting for her when the plane landed
  1. Was I talking to you?
  2. Were you writing the report when the electricity went off?
  3. When you came home, was he singing in the shower?
  4. Wasn’t Tom sitting in the cafe when you drove past?

Wh-Questions in the Past Progressive (Continuous)

Wh- questions are questions that require more information in their answers. Typical wh- words are what, where, when, which, why, who, and how.

To create a wh-question, start with the Wh-word, then was or were (wasn’t or weren’t for a negative question), then the subject (a person or thing that does the action), followed by the ing (participle) form of the verb and only then add the rest of the sentence.

Wh Word a form of be subject verbing rest of sentence
Who was I talking to
What was he / she / it doing
When were you / we / they planning on telling me the bad news
  1. Where were you standing when the trouble started?
  2. Who was I talking to? I can’t remember.
  3. Why wasn’t she waiting at the meeting point?

Tag Questions in the Past Progressive (Continuous)

Tag questions are those short questions that are tagged onto the end of a sentence. They are used just to make sure the person you’re talking to understood what you meant or to emphasize what you said.

They’re formed by using a positive sentence in the past progressive and adding wasn’t or weren’t and a pronoun (I, you, we, they, he, she, it) and a question mark.

  1. I was snoring last night, wasn’t I?
  2. They were all rushing for the exit, weren’t they?
  3. When Mr. Thomas called, David was solving crossword puzzles, wasn’t he?

You may also add a positive tag when you’re using a negative sentence.

  1. Jennifer wasn’t trying very hard, was she?
  2. The trains weren’t running on schedule yesterday, were they?

As a rule: When the sentence is positive, the tag is negative.
When the sentence is negative, the tag is positive.

Exercises – Past Progressive

Fill in the correct form of the verb in Past Progressive (Continuous) or Past Simple as in the examples.

  1. Tom was wrapping the gift when I walked in the room. (wrap / walk)
  2. Did he comfort her while she was crying? (comfort / cry)
  3. What were you doing when the accident occurred? (do / occur)
  1. What _______the manager ________ at 7:00 pm yesterday? (do)
  2. Tina and Shelly ____________ to the hotel when it _________ to rain. (walk/start)
  3. When Donny _________ the room, everyone ______________. (enter/talk)
  4. I _________ in the sales department when I first _________ Sofie. (work/meet)
  5. My brother ______the computer while I ______ for my trip. (use/pack)
  6. ______ you ______ attention when the teacher ______ your name? (pay/call)
  7. We ______ TV when the lighting ________. (watch/ strike)
  8. She _______ about me behind my back, wasn’t she? (whisper)
  9. ______ the client really ______out while Troy ______ the proposal? (walk / present)
  10. This morning, while I ________ breakfast, someone _______ on the door. (eat /knock)

Answers:

  1. was/doing
  2. were walking/started
  3. entered/was talking
  4. was working/met
  5. was using/was packing
  6. Were/paying/called
  7. were watching/struck
  8. was whispering
  9. Did/walk/was presenting
  10. was eating/knocked

Examples Past Progressive (Continuous)

Positive

  1. He was writing an e-mail when the phone rang.
  2. When the phone rang, he was writing an e-mail.
  3. While he was writing an e-mail, the phone rang.
  4. I was preparing dinner while Melanie was working upstairs.
  5. While Melanie was working upstairs, I was preparing dinner.

Negative

  1. I wasn’t sleeping when you came home last night.
  2. When Ms. Foster came in, the girls weren’t studying.
  3. Sam wasn’t lying when he said he loved you.

Yes/No Questions

  1. Was I talking to you?
  2. Were you writing the report when the electricity went off?
  3. When you came home, was he singing in the shower?
  4. Wasn’t Tom sitting in the cafe when you drove past?

Wh-Questions

  1. Where were you standing when the trouble started?
  2. Who was I talking to? I can’t remember.
  3. Why wasn’t she waiting at the meeting point?

Tag Questions

  1. I was snoring last night, wasn’t I?
  2. They were all rushing for the exit, weren’t they?
  3. When Mr. Thomas called, David was solving crossword puzzles, wasn’t he?
  4. Jennifer wasn’t trying very hard, was she?
  5. The trains weren’t running on schedule yesterday, were they?

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