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The Past Continuous

І 25. The Past Continuous is an analytical form which is built
up by means of the auxiliary verb to be in the Past Indefinite and
the ing-form of the notional verb (e.g. I was working. They were
etc.). (On the formation of the ing-form see "Verbs",
І 11.) The same auxiliary is used in the interrogative and negative
forms (e.g. Were you working? Was he working? We were not work-
ing. I was not working,
etc.). In spoken English the contracted
forms wasn't and weren't are used in negative sentences.

І 26. The Past Continuous is used in the following cases:
1) To express an action which was going on at a given moment
in the past. The most typical feature of this use of the Past Con-
tinuous is that the precise time limits of the action are not
known, its beginning and its end are not specified.

As a rule, no indication of a given past moment is necessary
because the meaning is clearly expressed by the Past Continuous
itself. However, sometimes it becomes important to mention the
moment and then it is indicated in the sentence by stating the pre-
cise time or with the help of another action which is usually a
point action expressed in the Past Indefinite.

e.g. Little Mary came in. She was eating an ice-cream cone.

Jolly's face crimsoned, then clouded. Some struggle was evi-
dently taking place in him.

I am afraid I took your wife's fan for my own, when I was

leaving your house tonight.
In a moment I returned to where Martin was still reading by

the fire.

Note. As has been said, the Past Indefinite is preferred to the Past Continuous
with certain durative verbs when attention is focused on the circumstances under
which the action is performed (see "Verbs", І 23, 6 b). However, the Past Continu-
ous is occasionally found, too.

e.g. She was speaking with difficulty, as though she had to think hard about each

Yet when it is intended to make the process of the action (indicated by a dura-
tive verb) the focus of communication, the use of the Past Continuous becomes
necessary. Compare the use of the Past Indefinite and the Past Continuous in the
following passage:

On one occasion I sat with them in the studio. Dirk and I were talking. Mrs
Stroeve sewed, and I thought I recognized the shirt she was mending as Strick-
land's. He lay on his back. He did not speak.

2) To express an action going on at a given period of time in
the past.
Inthis case the precise limits of the action are not
known either. The indication of the past period of time is general-
ly understood from the context but it may also be indicated in the
sentence in various ways.

e.g. Andrew had no idea whether he was doing well or badly in his

In the slight pause young Nicholas was heard saying gently
that Violet was taking lessons in pastel.

He remembered that Helen had met her first husband when
she was working in a New York publishing house.

"What were you doing in Paris?" "I was trying to find a pub-
lisher for my new book."

Wake was in New York when the news reached him. He was
acting in a play that had had a success in London.

Note. The Past Continuous may be used in present-time contexts to refer to a
past action whose duration is marked by such time indications as all day, all that
year, yesterday, the whole morning
and the like.

e.g. All through that winter and spring, I was attending committees, preparing

notes for the minister, reading memoranda, talking to my scientific friends.
Roy was keeping to his rooms all day.
All that winter they were experimenting with protective clothing.

However, this use of the Past Continuous is greatly restricted because it can be
applied only to a single action which is never part of a succession of actions. But
even in this case the Past Indefinite is usually found.

e.g. I stayed in all day.

But most commonly such actions are expressed with the help of the sentence
pattern to spend+ time Ч ing form.

e.g. I spent all the morning reading.

He spent the summer helping his uncle on the farm.

3) To express actions characterizing the person denoted by the
subject, i.e. bringing out the person's typical traits. Often such
adverbial modifiers as always and constantly are found in this case
in the sentence.

e.g. "This is Dan's breakfast," Adeline said, indicating it with a
bandaged thumb. She was always suffering from a cut or a

You remember how he was always writing verses.

He was always experimenting. He wasn't really a doctor, he
was a bacteriologist.

She was noisy and brash and constantly trying to attract at-
tention by any means.

The Past Continuous in this case imparts a subjective, emotion-
ally coloured tone. When no emotional colouring is implied, the
Past Indefinite is used to give an objective characteristic (see also
"Verbs", І 25).

4) To indicate a future action viewed from the past. It is an
action which was supposed to take place in the near future due to
one's previous decision. The time of the action need not always be
mentioned as it is easily understood from the situation.

e.g. Why didn't you tell me you were starting?

He did not know how he could send word that he was not

At the end of the week she wired that she was returning.

І 27. It should be remembered that there are the same restric-
tions to the use of the Past Continuous as to the Present Continu-
ous in so far as the lexical character of verbs is concerned (see
"Verbs", І 2, 2).

Like the Present Continuous, the Past Continuous may some-
times be found with stative verbs. It occurs either because the
verb has changed its meaning or because the action is lent great

e.g. I had a horrid feeling that she was seeing right through me

and knowing all about me.

I was seeing George regularly now. He took me as an equal.
The next morning, as I was going out of the college, I met the

Master in the court. "I was wanting to catch you, Eliot,"

he said.

I wasn't well that day, and I wasn't noticing particularly.
He felt he was being the little ray of sunshine about the home

and making a good impression.

Some durative verbs, for example, verbs of bodily sensation (to
feel, to hurt, to ache, to itch,
etc.) and such verbs as to wear, to look
(= to seem), to shine and others may be used either in the Past In-
definite or in the Past Continuous with little difference in meaning.

Cf. He was happy now that his wife was feeling better.

I saw that he felt upset.

Ted Newton stopped at my table for a quick drink. He was
wearing a fur coat.

A few minutes later Fred came from the direction of the sta-
bles. He wore riding breeches.

His wife was looking happy.

She looked like a very wise mermaid rising out of the sea.

І 28. Note the following sentence patterns in which we find
the Past Indefinite and the Past Continuous used in different
combinations with each other:

1) A complex sentence with a clause of time introduced by the
conjunction as. Within that pattern there may be three different
kinds of time relations between the action of the subordinate
clause and that of the principal clause.

a) The actions of the two clauses are fully simultaneous. In this
case the Past Indefinite is commonly found in both clauses.

e.g. I watched him as he drank his tea.
Roy talked little as they drove home.

Occasionally the Past Continuous is found in the principal clause
whereas the Past Indefinite is still used in the clause of time. It usu-
ally happens when the verb in the principal clause is terminative and
the Past Indefinite would indicate a completed action.

e.g. As I poured her out a glass of sherry, she was saying: "I al-
ways imagined you were older."

b) The actions of the principal and the subordinate clauses are
partially simultaneous. In this case the action of the subordinate
clause serves as a background for the action of the principal clause
which is usually a shorter accomplished action. In this case we
normally find the Past Continuous in the subordinate clause and
the Past Indefinite in the principal clause.

e.g. As I was going inside, Mrs Drawbell intercepted me.

One evening, just as I was leaving the office, Martin rang
me up.

c) The actions of the two clauses form a succession. In this
case, naturally, only the Past Indefinite is found.

e.g. As the sun disappeared, a fresh breeze stirred the new cur-
tains at the window.

As I turned back into the room a gust of wind crashed the
door shut behind me.

2) A complex sentence with a clause of time introduced by
the conjunction while. Here we find two different kinds of time
relations between the actions of the two clauses.

a) The actions are fully simultaneous. In this case either the
Past Continuous or the Past Indefinite is used in the subordinate
clause and the Past Indefinite is normally found in the principal

e.g. Martha said nothing but looked from one face to the other

while they discussed plans.
She sat still as a statue while he was playing the sonata.

b) The actions are partially simultaneous. In this case the ac-
tion of the subordinate clause serves as a background for the action
of the principal clause which is a shorter accomplished action. So

the Past Indefinite is used in the principal clause while in the
subordinate clause either the Past Indefinite or the Past Continu-
ous is found.

e.g. While I was reading, I heard a splash from the bath, and I

realized that Martin must be there.

While he stood there wondering what sort of pictures to hang
on the walls he heard the telephone ring.

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