What Is the Past Progressive Tense? (with Examples)

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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 , then you can click it!
to base form

( verb)

Select the tenses.

Present Tenses

Simple Present Tense The simple present tense is mostly used to describe facts and habits. More...(opens new tab) I base form you base form he/she/it 3rd pers sing present we base form you base form they base form Present Progressive Tense The present progressive tense is used for an ongoing action in the present. More...(opens new tab) I am present participle you are present participle he/she/it is present participle we are present participle you are present participle they are present participle Present Perfect Tense The present perfect tense is used for actions that began in the past. (Often, the actions continue into the present.) More...(opens new tab) I have past participle you have past participle he/she/it has past participle we have past participle you have past participle they have past participle Present Perfect Progressive Tense The present perfect progressive tense is used for a continuous activity that began in the past and continues into the present, or a continuous activity that began in past but has now finished (usually very recently). More...(opens new tab) I have been present participle you have been present participle he/she/it has been present participle we have been present participle you have been present participle they have been present participle

Past Tenses

Simple Past The simple past tense is used to describe a completed activity that happened in the past. More...(opens new tab) I past tense you past tense he/she/it past tense we past tense you past tense they past tense Past Progressive Tense The past progressive tense is used to describe an ongoing activity in the past. Often, it is used to set the scene for another action. More...(opens new tab) I was present participle you were present participle he/she/it was present participle we were present participle you were present participle they were present participle Past Perfect Tense The past perfect tense is used to emphasize that an action was completed before another took place. More...(opens new tab) I had past participle you had past participle he/she/it had past participle we had past participle you had past participle they had past participle Past Perfect Progressive Tense The past perfect progressive tense is used to show that an ongoing action in the past has ended. More...(opens new tab) I had been present participle you had been present participle he/she/it had been present participle we had been present participle you had been present participle they had been present participle

Future Tenses

Simple Future The simple future tense is used for an action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will base form you will base form he/she/it will base form we will base form you will base form they will base form Future Progressive Tense The future progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will occur in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will be present participle you will be present participle he/she/it will be present participle we will be present participle you will be present participle they will be present participle Future Perfect Tense The future perfect tense is used to describe an action that will have been completed at some point in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have past participle you will have past participle he/she/it will have past participle we will have past participle you will have past participle they will have past participle Future Perfect Progressive Tense The future perfect progressive tense is used for an ongoing action that will be completed at some specified time in the future. More...(opens new tab) I will have been present participle you will have been present participle he/she/it will have been present participle we will have been present participle you will have been present participle they will have been present participle

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