- Parent Category: Lower-Intermediate Skill Builders
- Category: Lower-Intermediate Skill Builders: Grammar
- Written by Chris Cotter
What is the past progressive tense?
The past progressive tense describes an action in progress around a specific time in the past. Here are two examples:
Q: What were you doing at 10:00 this morning?
A: I was getting ready for school (at 10:00 this morning).
Q: What were you doing when I called you?
A: I was walking the dog (when you called me).
Note that in all the sentences, a particular time is referenced. In the first example, both the question and the answer mention 10:00 am. In the second example, when you called me refers to a specific time which both speakers understand. (Perhaps, for example, the phone call was placed on a Saturday afternoon around 3:00. Both speakers know this, so the time is specific.)
It's also important to note that we don't use the past progressive tense for repeated actions in the past. The simple past tense is used for any repeated actions that happened in the past.
What is the sentence structure?
The sentence structure is as follows:
subject | be verb in the past tense | main verb + ing | object/complement (time reference)
Alexis | was | meeting | with her boss at 10:00.
The committee chairman | was | giving | a press conference at 3:00 this afternoon.
I was sleeping when my wife left for work.
They were playing tennis all day on Saturday.
How is the past progressive used?
The past progressive tense usually describes a background action in progress. Other sentences which follow often use the simple past tense. For example:
Bill was driving to the store after work. He got into a car accident.
Alexis was meeting her boss at 10:00, so she missed the call from her client.
They were visiting relatives, so they missed the party.
Often we link the two sentences together with when, and the past progressive sentence provides the longer background action as a time reference.
Bill was driving to the store after work (longer action) when he got into a car accident (shorter action).
Samantha was mountain climbing (longer action) when she fell and broke her leg (shorter action).
In the above sentences, the longer action is interrupted by the shorter action. However, we can also use while for two longer actions which happen at the same time. For example:
Bill was driving to the store after work (longer action) while it was snowing (longer action).
Kathy was relaxing on the beach (longer action) while her husband was working fourteen-hour days (action).
Is there additional information on past progressive sentences?
When we use "when" and the past progressive tense, the action in the simple past can interrupt the longer action in progress. For example:
I was brushing my teeth (longer action) when my mom called (interrupting action).
My friend was moving the lawn (longer action) when it started to rain (interrupting action).