Past Progressive Tense in English Grammar

Introduction

The past progressive tense, also called the past continuous tense, emphasises a continuing or incomplete action in the past. We can use this tense to describe what was in progress at a specific moment in time in the past. It is formed with the auxiliary verb be, conjugated in the past (was/were), and present participle or -ing form of the main verb.

Learn how to conjugate the past progressive tense in English grammar and get tips on its usage. In the exercises, you can test your English grammar skills.

Example

Lucy was sitting on the beach at six o’clock yesterday.

Her friend Laurence doesn’t like being lazy. So while Lucy was relaxing on the beach, he was sailing.

Lucy was watching the sunset when Laurence passed by on his boat.

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Usage

There are a few ways to use the past progressive tense in English grammar. We can use it to express:

  • an action that was in progress at a specific time in the past
    Example:
    Lucy was sitting on the beach at six o’clock yesterday.
  • two actions that were taking place at the same time
    Example:
    While Lucy was relaxing on the beach, Laurence was sailing.
  • a past action that was interrupted by a second past action
    Example:
    Lucy was watching the sunset when Laurence passed by on his boat.

Conjugation of English Past Progressive Tense

To conjugate the past progressive tense, we use the past tense form of the auxiliary verb be and the main verb in its ing-form. The table below provides an overview of the conjugation of the past progressive tense in positive, negative and interrogative sentences.

positivenegativequestion
I / he / she / it I was speaking I was not speaking Was I speaking?
you / we / they you were speaking you were not speaking Were you speaking?

Exceptions

The present participle or -ing form is usually formed by adding -ing to the infinitive of the verb. However, there are a few exceptions to the rule.

  • An -e at the end of the word is removed, but -ee, -oe and -ye remain unchanged.
    Example:
    come – coming
    (but: agree – agreeing)
  • For words that have a short stressed vowel before the final consonant, the final consonant is doubled, but not -w, -x and -y.
    Example:
    sit – sitting
    (but: mix – mixing)
  • An -l as the final consonant after a vowel is always doubled in British English, but not in American English.
    Example:
    travel – travelling (British)
    traveling (American)
  • An -ie at the end of the word is replaced with a -y.
    Example:
    lie – lying

Signal Words

Signal words can help you to identifiy which verb tense is being used in a sentence. The signal words for the past progressive are:

  • while, as long as