Past Continuous Tense

Past Continuous Tense – Definition and Concept

We have already defined the tense of the verb as the time of occurrence or execution of the verb with respect to the time of making the statement. One of the three tenses of the verb is the past tense, which is further classified into four types.

The Past Continuous tense is that tense of the verb which is used when the verb was occurring or was in progress before the time in which the statement is being made. A few examples below:

  • The union was meeting
  • She was performing to her potential.
  • I was expecting a full house at the multiplex.

Past continuous tense is used to signify activities that was occurring before or was in progress. Thus, verbs expressed in the Past continuous tense are very frequently modified by adverbs of frequency or time.

At the end of this article, the reader should be able to:

  • Understand the basic idea of Past Continuous Tense
  • Understand Subject-Verb agreement for the Past Continuous Tense
  • Understand the influence of auxiliaries and modals on Subject-Verb agreement
  • Study Past Continuous Tense in the Passive Voice
  • Learn the Negative and Interrogative forms in the Past Continuous Tense

Past Continuous Tense

As we’ve discussed above, Past Continuous Tense is used to describe activities that are in progress at the time of statement. Let us take a few more examples to understand the idea:

  • The board was thinking that you were delusional.
  • I was reaching the dormitory before.
  • The guests were arriving at the apartment.
  • Were you coming here today?

In each of the examples, we note how the verb shows the state of action or being of the noun or pronoun as being in progress before the time as the statement. Thus all of the verbs in these examples are in the Past Continuous Tense.

Subject Verb Agreement (Noun-Verb agreement)

In the Past Continuous Tense, Subject-Verb agreement is where we learn the general form of the verb for different nouns and pronouns. Since we have three persons (first, second and third) and two numbers (singular and plural) we study the different forms of the verb for all the six combinations:

First Person

  • I was coming to your place. (First person singular)
  • I was taking the readings now. (First person singular)
  • We were presenting our arguments. (First person plural)
  • We were anticipating a big contest here. (First person plural)

In each of the examples above, we see that the past continuous tense of verbs usually take the present participle form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural first person pronouns, apart from the auxiliary.

First Person Singular form:

Pronoun + singular past form of auxiliary (was) + Present Participle form of Verb OR

Pronoun + modal + root form (be) + Present Participle form of Verb

First Person Plural form:

Pronoun + plural past form of auxiliary (were) + Present Participle form of Verb OR

Pronoun + modal + root form (be) + Present Participle form of Verb

Second Person

  • You were being a pessimist.
  • You were taking the lead.
  • Were you completing the targets before?

In each of the examples above, we see that the past continuous tense of verbs usually take the present participle form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural second person pronouns, along with the plural form of the auxiliary.

Second Person Singular form:

Pronoun + plural past form of auxiliary (were) + Present Participle form of Verb OR

Pronoun + modal + root form (be) + Present Participle form of Verb

Second Person Plural form:

Pronoun + plural past form of auxiliary (were) + Present Participle form of Verb OR

Pronoun + modal + root form (be) + Present Participle form of Verb

Third Person

Nouns are generally in the third person, while pronouns can be of all persons. So nouns take the same form of the verb as third person pronouns. Examples include:

  • He was emerging as a spin bowler for the national side. (Third person singular pronoun)
  • It was growing all over the place. (Third person singular pronoun)
  • They were bringing the party home tonight. (Third person plural pronoun)
  • The Dalai Lama was residing in India. (Singular noun)
  • These machines were processing 35 bottles per minute. (Plural noun)

In each of the examples above, we see that the past continuous tense of verbs usually take the present participle form of the verb, with the same form for both singular and plural third person pronouns and nouns, apart from the auxiliary.

Third Person Singular form:

Noun/Pronoun + singular past form of auxiliary (was) + Present Participle form of Verb OR

Noun/Pronoun + modal + root form (be) + Present Participle form of Verb

Third Person Plural form:

Noun/Pronoun + plural past form of auxiliary (were) + Present Participle form of Verb OR

Noun/Pronoun + modal + root form (be) + Present Participle form of Verb

Auxiliaries and Modals in Past Continuous Tense

Auxiliaries and modals have the same function in a sentence: assist the verb. While auxiliaries change with the tense of the verb, modals do not.

Auxiliaries

Different forms of the auxiliary be are used with the present participle verb across all forms of nouns and pronouns. We have already understood these forms in the previous section. Let us study these forms in particular now.

  • I was taking the readings now. (First person singular taking singular past form was)
  • We were anticipating a big contest. (First person plural taking plural past form were)
  • You were being a pessimist. (Second person taking plural past form were)
  • It was growing all over the place. (Third person singular taking singular past form were)
  • They were bringing the party home tonight. (Third person plural taking plural past form were)
  • The manager was trying to leave the company. (Singular noun taking singular past form was)
  • The board members were proposing a merger. (Plural noun taking plural past form were)

Modals [1]

Modals however can be used to enhance the meaning of the verb. Upon using a modal with the verb in the Past Continuous form, the auxiliary verb is reduced to its root form.

Let us take a few examples:

  • The board was thinking that you’re delusional.
  • I was reaching the dormitory now.
  • The guests were arriving at the apartment.

Now, observe the effect of addition of a modal:

  • The board might be thinking that you’re delusional.
  • I could be reaching the dormitory now.
  • The guests may be arriving at the apartment.

Each of these modals effectively reduces the auxiliary to the root form be. Hence we have different rules for Past continuous tense with the inclusion of modals. We study the Passive Voice in the next section.

Past Continuous Tense in Passive Voice

A sentence or a verb is in active voice when the subject is the executioner of the verb, while passive voice is when the subject is the recipient of the verb. With a change in voice, all pronouns and nouns take different forms of the verb. We explore that in this section.

From every type of person and number, we pick one example each from the previous sections.

First Person

  • Active: I was taking the readings now. (First person singular)
  • Passive: The readings were being taken (by me)
  • Active: We were anticipating a big contest here. (First person plural)
  • Passive: A big contest was being anticipated (by us)

Second Person

  • Active: Were you completing the targets today?
  • Passive: Were the targets being completed today?

Third Person

  • Active: These machines presently were processing 35 bottles per minute. (Plural noun)
  • Passive: 35 bottles were being processed presently per minute.
  • Active: They were bringing the party home tonight. (Third person plural pronoun)
  • Passive: The party was being brought home tonight.

We make the following observations:

  • The primary verb takes the past participle form in the passive voice.
  • The number of the object/predicate (not the subject) influences the auxiliary verb in passive form.
  • The present participle form being is added to the main verb.
  • The past form of the auxiliary verb be is always added to the verb.

Thus the formation of the passive form of a verb in the Past continuous tense would be

For all nouns/pronouns:

Noun/Pronoun + Past form of Auxiliary + being + Past Participle form of Verb OR

Noun/Pronoun + modal + Root form of Auxiliary + being + Past Participle form of Verb

Interrogative Sentences in Past Continuous Tense

Here, we study the rearrangement of words of a sentence with a change in type to interrogative sentences. Let us begin with a few examples from the previous sections:

  • I was taking the readings earlier.
  • You were taking the lead.
  • It was growing all over the place.
  • They were bringing the party home tonight.
  • The board might be thinking that you’re delusional.
  • You could be reaching the dormitory now.

 

The above sentences make a regular statement or what we call assert. Hence these are examples of assertive sentences. Let us now put these into the interrogative form:

  • Was I taking the readings earlier?
  • Were you taking the lead?
  • Was it growing all over the place?
  • Were they bringing the party home tonight?
  • Might the board be thinking that you’re delusional?
  • Could you be reaching the dormitory now?

The Observations:

From the above examples, we make the following inferences:

  • The interrogative form of the sentence begins with the auxiliary verb, if the modal is absent.
  • The interrogative form of the sentence begins with the modal verb, if it is present.

Thus the different interrogative forms of assertive sentences use the following formations:

  • Auxiliary (Past form) + Subject Noun/Pronoun + Present Participle form of the verb (No modal)
  • Modal + Subject Noun/Pronoun + Root form of Auxiliary + Present Participle form of the verb (Modal Present)

Negative Sentences in the Past Continuous Tense

What happens when we change the form of assertive sentences from positive to negative form?

Let us take the examples above again:

  • I was taking the readings now.
  • You were taking the lead.
  • It was growing all over the place.
  • They were bringing the party home tonight.
  • The board might be thinking that you’re delusional.
  • I could be reaching the dormitory now.

When we convert them into the negative form, we get:

  • I was not taking the readings now.
  • You were not taking the lead.
  • It was not growing all over the place.
  • They were not bringing the party home tonight.
  • The board might not be thinking that you’re delusional.
  • I could not be reaching the dormitory now.

The Observations:

From the above examples, we make the following inferences:

  • The negative not occupies its place between the auxiliary and the main verb, if the modal is absent.
  • The negative not occupies its place between the modal and the root form of auxiliary, if the modal is present.

Thus the different interrogative forms of assertive sentences use the following formations:

  • Subject Noun/Pronoun + past form of auxiliary + not + Present Participle form of verb
  • Subject Noun/Pronoun + modal + not + root form of auxiliary + Present Participle form of verb

Conclusion

This concludes the discussion on the Past Continuous Tense.

Notes

 [1] The use of modals on verbs in the Past Tenses creates confusion about the tense of the sentence. Note the examples in the discussion on modals. The addition of a modal reduces the verb from past form to root form and thus the sentence resembles their present tense equivalent.

This means that the sentence takes the Simple Present form (with modal) if initially expressed in Simple Past form (without modal), Present Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Continuous form (without modal), Present Perfect form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect form (without modal), and Present Perfect Continuous form (with modal) if initially expressed in Past Perfect Continuous form (without modal).

Readers can verify the above statement by comparing the section on modals of the articles on the corresponding forms of Present and Past Tense, especially the examples of sentences after the implementation of modals.

Thus in situations like these, the role of adverbs becomes quite important, as they are the determiner of the tense of these sentences. Sometimes, even after the use of adverbs, the tense of the sentence is left ambiguous. In that case, irrespective of the form of the sentence before the inclusion of modals, we identify these sentences as being in the Present Tense. The subtype of the Present Tense can thereafter be determined by the conventional methods discussed in the articles on Present Tense.