The Past Continuous

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

was sleeping at 6 o’clock this morning.

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.

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:


to be (past)

-ing form of verb



having lunch

at 1 o’clock this afternoon.




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.

was working when she called.

I was sleeping when she went out to work.


Differences between past continuous and past simple

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

was having breakfast at 7 o’clock this morning.

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

had breakfast this morning.

was having a shower when the phone rang.

I had a shower last night.

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.


was working in Massachussetts in 1990.


worked in Massachussetts in 1990.


She was living here last summer.


She lived here last summer.