What is the past progressive tense?

What is the past progressive tense?

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated November 8, 2022

English has many ways to discuss events or actions that happened in the past. If you are studying English, you are probably familiar with a few. Learning different past tenses helps you communicate in a clear way. It can also help you sound more natural in English.

We’ll discuss how to use the past progressive tense, when to use it, and give you some examples you can practice with.

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When to use the past progressive tense

The past progressive is also known as the past continuous. Don’t be confused by the different names when you practice English grammar exercises. They are the same tense!

The simple past (for regular verbs, this is verb + -ed) describes an action in the past that is completed. 

  • I walked to the park.

The simple past is important when using the past progressive tense. More information on this is below. 

We use the past progressive tense to describe actions that were in progress at a specific time in the past. We describe an action that started in the past and was then interrupted by another action. 

  • She was sleeping when the alarm sounded
  • They were driving when the rain started
  • You were eating when the doorbell rang. 

These sentences use the past continuous followed by the past simple interruption. The past continuous verb here conveys the past progressive tense (remember, these terms mean the same thing). 

We also use the past progressive to describe two actions that were in progress at the same time in the past. 

  • He was cooking while I was reading
  • The dogs were barking while I was talking on the phone. 
  • I was sleeping when you were working

In these examples, both actions are happening at the same time in the past. Both use the past progressive tense. We use the words while or when to connect the two actions. 

How to form the past progressive tense

The past progressive tense uses this formula: 

Subject + was / were + present participle (verb + ing)

  • I was sleeping
  • They were sleeping

Past progressive sentences must include was or were, both past tense forms of the verb to be. Let’s review the verb to be to see that there are only those two options:

SubjectTo Be
You (singular)were
He / She / It was
You (plural)were

The past progressive tense must also include the present participle. If you didn’t remember that the present participle is made by adding -ing to a verb, feel free to take an English grammar review break.

Above, we learned how to form positive sentences. We should also learn to form negative sentences in the past progressive. In order to make the phrase negative, we need to add the word not to our sentence. Here is the formula. 

Subject + was / were + not + present participle (-ing verb)

  • I was not sleeping.
  • They were not sleeping

We can also use a contraction in negative sentences. 

  • I wasn’t sleeping
  • They weren’t sleeping

Example sentences

Let’s take a look at some more past progressive tense examples. Use these sentences to practice more on your own. Try to substitute different verbs to describe actions you observed yesterday, last week or last year.

  • They were cleaning the house when the man arrived at the door. 
  • I was running while the baby was sleeping. 
  • We were working when the fire started in the building. 

The past progressive tense is especially useful for asking questions about the past. We can ask two main types of questions. We have simple Yes/No questions and open-ended questions, which use a question word. Note: For questions, you will notice the subject and the verb are separated.

Yes/No questions formula

Was / Were + Subject + present participle (-ing)

  • Was the baby sleeping while you were running
  • Were you cooking when he called

Open-ended questions using a question word formula 

Question words are who, what, when, where, why and how. 

  • What was John doing when the man called
  • Where were you when the baby was crying?
  • Why were you working when they were visiting you? 

What were you doing while they were studying English?

The past progressive tense is a widely used English verb tense. Learning it will help you communicate in more complex ways. And it can help you sound more natural and fluent. Whether you learn British English or American English, understanding different ways to talk about the past will take practice. In the end, your time and effort will be worth it. 

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her consulting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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