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English Grammar Reference: The Past Continuous

We use the past continuous to talk about an action which was happening at an exact time in the past.

I was sleeping at 6 o'clock this morning.

  I was sleeping  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
6 o'clock this morning
Present
Future

The construction is the same as the present continuous except the verb to be is in the past. The present continous refers to a specific moment in the present -now- while the past continuous refers to a specific moment in the past.

They were working at 11 o'clock this morning.

  they were working  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
11 o'clock this morning
Present
Future

Because it is a continuous tense, there is the idea that the action is long and started before the time started and will continue.

Look at the construction:

Subject

to be (past)

-ing form of verb

I

was

having lunch

at 1 o'clock this afternoon.

They

were

sleeping

at 3 o'clock this morning.

It is not always necessary to specify the time if you use the past simple to specify the moment in the past.

I was working when she called.

  I was working  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
she called
Present
Future

I was sleeping when she went out to work.

  I was sleeping  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
she went out to work
Present
Future

Differences between past continuous and past simple

The past continuous is used for a specific moment in the past:

I was having breakfast at 7 o'clock this morning.

  I was having breakfast  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
7 o'clock this morning
Present
Future

The past simple is used for a period in the past:

I had breakfast this morning.

  I had breakfast  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
this morning
Present
Future

I was having a shower when the phone rang.

  I was having a shower  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
phone rang
Present
Future

I had a shower last night.

  I had a shower  
|__________||||||_________|______________________|
Past
last night
Present
Future

Note that when we talk about an action which lasted a long time in the past we can use either the past simple or the past continuous.

Examples:

I was working in Massachussetts in 1990.

I worked in Massachussetts in 1990.

She was living here last summer.

She lived here last summer.