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English Grammar in Use (12) Past continuous (I was doing)

11:08 PM / Posted by 2easy_Team /

Past continuous (I was doing)

A) Study this example:

Yesterday Tom and Jim played tennis. They began at 10 o'clock and finished at 11 o'clock.

What were they doing at 10.30?

They were playing tennis (at 10.30).

'They were playing' means that they were in the middle of playing tennis. They had started playing but they hadn't finished.

This is the past continuous tense:

I / he/ she was playing

We / they / you were playing

We use the past continuous to say that someone was in the middle of doing something at a certain time. The action or situation had already started before this time but hadn't finished:

- This time last year I was living in Brazil.

- What were you doing at 10 o'clock last nigh?

B) The past continuous does not tell us whether an action was finished or not. Perhaps it was finished, perhaps not. Compare:

- Tom was cooking the dinner. (past continuous) = He was in the middle of cooking the dinner and we don't know whether he finished cooking it.

- Tom cooked the dinner (past simple) = He began and finished it.

C) We often use the past continuous (I was doing) and the past simple (I did) together to say that something happened in the middle of something else:

- Tom was burnt his hand when he was cooking the dinner.

- I saw Jim in the pub. He was drinking gin and talking to the barman.

- It was raining when I got up.

- While I was working in the garden, I hurt my back.

But to say that one thing happened after another, use the past simple:

- Yesterday evening Tom was having a bath when the phone rang. He got out of the bath and answered the phone.


- When Tom arrived, we were having dinner. (past continuous) = We had already started dinner before Tom arrived.

- When Tom arrived, we had dinner. (past simple) = Tom arrived and then we had dinner.

Note: There are some verbs (for example know) which are not normally used in continuous tenses.

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