What Is a Past Progressive Verb in English?

Definition and Examples

Stack of dictionaries on a desk
“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.” - Steven Wright. WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

In English grammar, the past progressive is a verb construction (made up of a past form of the verb "to be"—"was" or "were"—and a present participle) that conveys an ongoing action in the past that has been completed. The past progressive is also known as the past continuous.

Simple Past Vs. Past Progressive

The simple past tense (e.g. worked), referred to often as the past tense, is used to describe a completed action. The past progressive (e.g. was or were working) is used to describe an action that was in progress at some point in the past but has since been completed. The following excerpt from The Teacher's Grammar of English helps to clarify what it means for verbs to be past progressive.

"Often the action expressed with the past progressive was ongoing at the time another action occurred. In such cases, the action that occurred is expressed with the simple past, and the sentence generally includes a subordinate clause that begins with when or while. With when, the past progressive action can be in the main clause, as in (39a), or in the subordinate clause, as in (39b).

  • (39) a. He​ was studying for his exam when I saw him this afternoon.
  • (39) b. She accidentally cut her hand while/when she was chopping vegetables for a salad.

Although most textbooks stress the use of the past progressive in sentences like those in (39), quite frequently the past progressive is used in sentences like (40), in which two ongoing actions in the past were occurring simultaneously:

  • (40) She was studying in the library when I was talking to Tom," (Cowan 2008).

Present Progressive Vs. Past Progressive

Some people get confused when verbs are continuous in the past tense, thinking that a continuous verb signals an action happening in the present. Marjolijn Verspoor and Kim Sauter clarify the difference between the present progressive and past progressive verb tenses below.

"The difference between are walking and were walking is that the present progressive refers to an event as taking place now, whereas the past progressive tense refers to the event as having taken place at a particular moment in the past.

  • The men walk with their heads down. ( simple present tense)
  • The men are walking with their heads down. ( present progressive tense)
  • The men were walking with their heads down. ( past progressive tense)

To form a progressive tense, a form of be is used, which must be followed by a present participle form (-ing) of a verb," (Verspoor and Sauter 2000).

Examples of Past Progressive Verbs

Here are several examples of past progressive verbs in action from literature. For additional practice, see if you can change the past progressive verb from each into a simple past verb and then present progressive verb.

  • "I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster," (Walls 2006).
  • "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again." -Oscar Wilde
  • "I had some eyeglasses. I was walking down the street when suddenly the prescription ran out." -Steven Wright
  • "1492. The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them," (Vonnegut 1973).
  • "I met this wonderful girl at Macy's. She was buying clothes and I was putting Slinkies on the escalator." -Steven Wright
  • "As we were talking outside, it was cold, we were shivering yet warmed by the subject matter / I was hoping, I was hoping we could heal each other / I was hoping, I was hoping we could be raw together," (Morissette 1998).
  • "A few days later, I was studying when Auntie Annie called me into the living room. Mark was standing there, frowning at the shining Christmas ornaments," (Kadohata 1997).
  • "At the very moment that the iceberg struck, the saloon passengers were singing 'A Life on the Ocean Wave,'" (Twain 1883).

Sources

  • Cowan, Ron. The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Kadohata, Cynthia. In the Heart of the Valley of Love. 1st ed., University of California Press, 1997.
  • Morissette, Alanis. "I Was Hoping." Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Royaltone Studios, 1998, 10.
  • Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. James R. Osgood & Co., 1883.
  • Verspoor, Marjolijn, and Kim Sauter. English Sentence Analysis: An Introductory Course. John Benjamins Publishing, 2000.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Breakfast of Champions. Dell Publishing, 1973.
  • Walls, Jeannette. . The Glass CastleScribner, 2006.