If you speak English, you most likely make use of the English past tense every day. And chances are, if you're not an English scholar or planning on teaching English, you don't know how to explain how each of the four tenses making up the past tense system are formed and used (or even that there are four variations!). For the average person; there is one past tense and that's all there is to know. If you want to know more (or plan on teaching English) then knowledge of each of the four minor tenses that make up the past tense is required. The four past tenses are: past simple, past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous.

This simple guide will tell you everything you need to know about the second of the past tenses, the past continuous tense.

When is the past continuous tense used?

The past continuous tense is used for:

- Referring to actions that have been interrupted or were being performed at the same time as another action e.g.

While I was washing my car, it started to rain; He was cleaning the kitchen while she got started on the bathroom.

- Referring to gradual developments that took place in the past e.g.

The fog was getting thicker with each passing minute; Times were getting more and more difficult

- Referring to actions that happened before the time being mentioned (and most likely continued after) e.g.

Yesterday afternoon, he was walking down the street; They were still dancing at midnight

- Describing events in stories e.g.

There was lots of dancing and partying on the cruise; As we got there the sun was setting and some of the participants were already leaving

How is the past continuous tense formed?

Tenses have three variations: Affirmative, Negative and Question

Note: The auxiliary verb "be" has two past forms: was (used with units) and were (used with groups). The present participle is the "ing" form of a verb.

-Affirmative: Subject + auxiliary verb "be" + present participle

He was eating melons; They were playing bingo

-Negative: Subject + auxiliary verb "be" + not + present participle

He was not eating melons; They were not playing bingo

- Question: Auxiliary verb "be" + subject + present participle

Was he eating melons?; Were they playing bingo?

Contracted forms

When using the negative past continuous tense, the contracted versions of the auxiliary verb "be" + not can be used. This is the form that is usually used when speaking English – it is usually seen as more natural. The contracted forms are as follows:

Was not = Wasn't

Were not = Weren't

Note: The contracted versions are formed by adding the auxiliary verb "be" + not and replacing "o" with an apostrophe. Contracted forms of subjects (he's, she's, it's) cannot be used with the past tense.

Keep it simple

It may seem that there is no simple way of learning the English tense system, but by taking one minor tense at a time and practicing its formation and different uses, one will find that the tense system can be learnt fairly quickly. Knowledge of parts of speech and the rules to form each tense is important in the beginning, and once these are fully remembered, practice will see the entire system becoming much easier to understand and use naturally and correctly.