What Is the Past Progressive Tense? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Past Progressive Tense

The past progressive tense is used to describe an ongoing activity in the past. For example:
  • John was baking a cake.
  • They were painting the fence.
Often, the past progressive tense is used to set the scene for another action. For example:
  • John was baking a cake when the storm started.
  • They were painting the fence while I was cutting the grass.
The past progressive tense is also known as the "past continuous tense" or the "past continuing tense".

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing the past progressive tense:

Infographic for the Past Progressive Tense

Here is an infographic explaining the past progressive tense:

past progressive tense

Examples of the Past Progressive Tense and Its Uses

Here are three common uses of the past progressive tense:

(1) The past progressive tense can be used to describe an activity in the past that was interrupted:
  • He was painting the door when a bird struck the window.
  • They were sleeping when the alarm went off.
(2) The past progressive tense can be used for describing an action taking place when another occurred.
  • While they were painting the door, I painted the windows.
  • While they weren't painting the door, I painted the windows.
  • Were they painting the door when I painted the windows?
  • Weren't they painting the door when I painted the windows?
(3) The past progressive tense can be used for describing an action that was taking place at the same time as another:
  • While they were painting the door, I was painting the windows.

Forming the Past Progressive Tense

The past progressive tense is formed like this:

For singular:
[singular subject]
+
"was"
+
[present participle ("verb-ing")]


For plural:
[plural subject]
+
"were"
+
[present participle]

Forming the Present Participle

The [verb] + "ing" part is known as a present participle. It is formed like this:

Add "ing" to most verbs:
  • play > playing
  • shout > shouting

For verbs that end "e", remove the "e" and add "ing":
  • prepare > preparing
  • ride > riding

For verbs that end "ie", change the "ie" to "y" and add "ing":
  • lie > lying
  • untie > untying

For verbs whose last syllable is written [consonant-vowel-consonant] and is stressed, double the final consonant and add "ing":
  • run > running
  • forget > forgetting

The Negative Version

If you need the negative version, you can use the following construction:
"was not" or "were not"
+
[present participle]
  • He was not painting the door when a bird struck the window.
  • They were not sleeping when the alarm went off.
Remember that "was not" and "were not" are sometimes written as the contractions "wasn't" and "weren't."

The Question Version

If you need to ask a question, you can use the following word order for a yes/no question:
"was" or "were"
+
[subject]
+
[present participle]
  • Was John painting the door when a bird struck the window?
  • Were they sleeping when the alarm went off?
You can use the following word order for a question-word question:
[question word]
+
"was" or "were"
+
[subject]
+
[present participle]
  • When was John painting the door?
  • Where were they sleeping when the alarm went off?
You can use the following word order for a choice question:
"was" or "were"
+
[subject]
+
[present participle]
+
choice A
+
or
+
choice B
  • Was John painting the door or the window?
"was" or "were"
+
[subject]
+
present participle A
+
or
+
present participle B
  • Were they sleeping or playing when the alarm went off?

Verb Tense Widget

Use this widget to learn about the different tenses. How do you use this widget? Well, if there's a button, a drop-down menu, or a , you can click it!

The Other Past Tenses

The past progressive tense is one of four past tenses. This table shows all four of the past tenses:
The 4 Past Tenses Example
simple past tense I went
past progressive tense I was going
past perfect tense I had gone
past perfect progressive tense I had been going

Slider Showing All the Tenses

The following slider shows all 12 tenses. The past progressive tense is highlighted with a yellow background.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

Take a test on the past progressive tense Tenses Simple past tense Past perfect tense Past perfect progressive tense Simple present tense Present progressive tense Present perfect tense Present perfect progressive tense Simple future tense Future progressive tense Future perfect tense Future perfect progressive tense Glossary of grammatical terms