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Grammar theory.doc
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The Past Continuous Tense

I. The Formation

The Past Continuous is formed by means of the Past Indefinite of the auxiliary verb ''to be'' and Participle I of the notional verb.

In the interrogative form the auxiliary verb is placed before the subject.

In the negative form the negative particle 'not' is placed after the auxiliary verb.

  • I was reading.

  • Were you reading?

  • I was not reading.

II. The Use

1) The Past Continuous is used to denote an action going on at a definite moment in the past. We do not mention when the action started or finished. The moment of time may be indicated either by another past action expressed by a verb in the Past Indefinite or by an adverbial phrase. The definite moment is often not expressed directly. It may be shown by the previous context or understood from the situation. And if there are two or more actions in progress at the same time in the past we use the Past Continuous with them all:

  • At midnight he was still working.

  • He did not notice what was going on around him, he was reading.

  • She was talking on her mobile phone while she was driving to work.

2) We use the Past Continuous for an action which was in progress when another action interrupted it. We use the Past Continuous for the action in progress (longer action) and the past simple for the action which interrupted it (shorter action).

  • He was walking down the street when he ran into an old friend.

3) We use the Past Continuous to describe the atmosphere, setting, etc. in the introduction to a story (background events) before we describe the main events.

  • One beautiful autumn afternoon Ben was strolling down a quiet country lane. The birds were singing and the leaves were rustling in the breeze.

Note 1: Because we often use the Past Continuous to talk about something that is a “background”, not the main “news”, we can make something seem less important by using this tense. Compare:

  • I had lunch with the President yesterday. (important piece of news)

  • I was having lunch with the President yesterday, and she said... (as if there was nothing special for the speaker about lunching with the President)

Note 2: The Past Continuous is quite often used with verbs of saying: this gives more relative importance to the following verb – to what is said:

  • John was saying that he still can’t find a job.

4) The Past Continuous is used to denote temporary actions in the past:

  • He was staying at the hotel.

  • During my training I was earning less than my wife.

  • He knew he was being rude but he could not stop.

Note 1: The Past Continuous is often used with such phrases as the whole day, the whole month, all day long, from ... till... It can be applied only to a single action which is not part of a succession of actions.

  • They were working all day long.

5) The Past Continuous is used to denote developing or changing actions in the past.

  • Her symptoms were becoming more pronounced each day.

6) The Past Continuous is used for actions characterizing certain persons in the past. In such sentences the adverbials always, ever, constantly are used. Such sentences are emotionally coloured. That means that the actions happened repeatedly and unexpectedly or in an unplanned and unpleasant way.

  • He was constantly losing things.

  • Aunt Lucy was always turning up without warning and bringing us presents.

  • I didn’t like him – he was continually borrowing money.

7) We can make requests, suggestions and questions more tentative and polite by using the Past Continuous. We often use the verbs think and wonder:

  • We were wondering if you would like to join us. (=Would you like to join us?)

  • Were you planning on going somewhere else later? (=Are you planning on ...?)

8) The Past Continuous is used for future actions viewed from the past:

a) to denote past arrangements, usually with verbs of motion. The arranged event may or may not have taken place:

  • He said he was travelling in a week.

Note 1: If no future reference of the action is evident it implies that though the action was planned, it was not and will not be carried out.

  • I said quickly, '' She was coming to tea yesterday afternoon''.

b) in adverbial clauses of time and condition often after the conjunction while.

  • He said he would stay in the car while I was talking with the nurse.

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