Past Progressive Tense

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Past Progressive Tense? (with Examples)

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".

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?

Infographic for the Past Progressive Tense

past progressive tense
The tables below show all 12 tenses so you can see the past progressive tense among the other tenses. (You can change the verb by clicking one of the green buttons.)

Top 10 Regular Verbs

Top 10 Irregular Verbs

All 4 Past Tenses

PersonSimple PastPast Progressive TensePast Perfect TensePast Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
  • past tense
The simple past tense is for a completed activity that happened in the past.
  • was present participle
  • were present participle
  • was present participle
  • were present participle
  • were present participle
  • were present participle
The past progressive tense is for an ongoing activity in the past. Often, it is used to set the scene for another action.
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
  • had past participle
The past perfect tense is for emphasizing that an action was completed before another took place.
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
  • had been present participle
The past perfect progressive tense is for showing that an ongoing action in the past has ended.

All 4 Present Tenses

PersonSimple PresentPresent Progressive TensePresent Perfect TensePresent Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • base form
  • base form
  • 3rd pers sing present
  • base form
  • base form
  • base form
The simple present tense is mostly for a fact or a habit.
  • am present participle
  • are present participle
  • is present participle
  • are present participle
  • are present participle
  • are present participle
The present progressive tense is for an ongoing action in the present.
  • have past participle
  • have past participle
  • has past participle
  • have past participle
  • have past participle
  • have past participle
The present perfect tense is for an action that began in the past. (Often, the action continues into the present.)
  • have been present participle
  • have been present participle
  • has been present participle
  • have been present participle
  • have been present participle
  • have been present participle
The present perfect progressive tense is for a continuous activity that began in the past and continues into the present (or finished very recently).

All 4 Future Tenses

PersonSimple FutureFuture Progressive TenseFuture Perfect TenseFuture Perfect Progressive Tense
  • I
  • you
  • he/she/it
  • we
  • you
  • they
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
  • will base form
The simple future tense is for an action that will occur in the future.
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
  • will be present participle
The future progressive tense is for an ongoing action that will occur in the future.
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
  • will have past participle
The future perfect tense is for an action that will have been completed at some point in the future.
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
  • will have been present participle
The future perfect progressive tense is for an ongoing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future.

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

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See Also

Take a test on the past progressive tense See all the tenses What is a verb phrase? Glossary of grammatical terms

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