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The Past Continuous is used to express an action going on at a given period of time in the past.

In this case the precise limits of the action are not known either. The indication of the past period of time is generally deduced from the context but it may be also indicated in the sentence in various ways which have no special form.

Wakefield was in New York when news of the illness of Nicholas reached him. He was

acting in a play that had had a success in London.

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

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

York publishing house.

As a rule, this use of Past Continuous does not imply that the action is in process uninterruptedly all that period of time. Moreover, it usually means that the action does not fill up the whole period, the main implication being that it is generally the most characteristic feature of the doer of the action during that period of time. This idea is derived from the descriptive character of the Continuous form.

Note. As has been said, the Past Indefinite is preferred to the Past Continuous when attention is focused on the manner in which the action is performed, i.e.when there is an adverbial modifier of manner or comparison in the sentence.However, the Past Continuous is occasionally found, too.

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

Yet he was speaking with absolute nakedness.

3. Owing to its dynamic character, the Past Continuous may be used to express actions generally characterizing the person denoted by the subject, i.e. bringing out the person's typical traits. Often such adverbial modifiers as always, constantly, perpetually, for ever, etc. are found in this case in the sentence.

"Archer's tray," Adeline said, indicating it with a bandaged thumb. She was always suffering from a cut or a burn.

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

She was noisy and constantly trying to attract attention by any means.

This application also has descriptive force, the characteristic given to the subject of the sentence is emotionally coloured.


4. The Past Continuous is also found to indicate a future action viewed from the past. Itis an action which is supposed to take place in the near future due to a previous arrangement. The time of the action need not always be mentioned as it is easily understood from the situation.

Why didn't you tell me you were starting?

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

But I knew that Uncle Nicholas was leaving me money. You said you were going, Frank, 1 think. At the end of the week she wired that she was returning.

Note. Notice the following sentence which is a stereotype. It is emotionally coloured, expressing irritation: I thought you were never coming.

5. The Past Continuous may serve to denote unreality (referring to the present or future or simultaneous with another action). This use is structurally dependent as it is found in certain types of subordinate clauses, mainly in clauses of condition and concession, in object clauses after the verb to wish, in clauses of comparison and in object clauses after the expression it is time.

If I were describing the chap in one of my unsaleable stories I should write of him as being five-foot-nine. Even if he were not being offensive, he would have tempted me to say something hard.

" I wish you were coming with us, Mrs Whiteoak," said Swift.

They were eating their ice-cream with concentration, as though they were making an experiment in the college laboratory.


It should be borne in mind that there are the same restrictions to the use of the Past Continuous as to the application of the Present Continuous in so far as the lexical character of verbs is concerned.

Like the Present Continuous, the Past Continuous may be found with verbs which normally do not admit of the Continuous form. It occurs either because the verb has changed its meaning or for reasons of emotional colouring.

He gazed at the picture. It surprised him. He had always liked it, but it seemed that now he was seeing it for the first time.

I was seeing George regularly now. He took me as an equal. I had a horrid feeling that she was seeing right through me and knowing all about me.

The butler had replied that Lord Percy was confined to bed and was seeing nobody.

The next morning, as 1 was going out of the college, I met the Master in the court. "1 was wanting to catch you, Eliot," he said. They followed the path across a stubble field where small birds were finding their evening meal.

He felt he was being the little ray of sunshine about the home and making a good impression. Nothing that I could say would convince him that I was not being intentionally humourous.

With some verbs the Past Continuous or the Past Indefinite may be used without any marked change of meaning as these verbs in themselves imply continuity or duration. This, in the first place, refers to the verbs to feel, to wear and to look.

Cf. His thoughts were interrupted by Ted Newton, the dentist, who stopped at the table

for a quick straight drink. Ted was wearing a racoon coat.

A few minutes later he came from the direction of the stables. He wore riding breeches.

It is important for practical purposes to consider the following sentence patterns in which we find the Past Indefinite and/or the Past Continuous used in different combinations with each other.

1) There is a sentence pattern which is a complex sentence with a clause of time introduced by the conjunction as. Within that pattern there may be three different kinds of time relation between the actions of the principal and the subordinate clauses.

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

I watched him as he drank his tea.

Renny and Piers talked little as they drove home.

Christian listened with a kind of hypnotized boredom as

Norman continued to hold forth. She was sitting half-in, half-out of the shadow, and she seldom looked at my father as she spoke.

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

As we walked along the country footpath, 1 was myself sorting out my official thoughts collecting what I could safely say to Drawbell.

And as 1 poured her out a glass of sherry, she was saying: "I always imagined you darker than Martin."

b) The actions of the principal and the subordinate clauses may be partially simultaneous, when 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.

As he and Renny were passing the closed door of a bedroom Renny said, "In there is my Uncle Nicholas. You'll meet him later."

But as I was playing with the baby she remarked, all of a sudden: "Lewis, you'd rather be alone, wouldn't you?" One evening just as I was leaving the office, Martin rang me up.

Occasionally the Past Indefinite is found in both clauses.

As we talked I realized that to Irene it seemed as strange, as exciting, as different a slice of existence, as Martin had found hers.

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

Indefinite is found.

As she turned the corner and advanced toward the court a man standing near the gates moved in her direction.

As the sun disappeared, a fresh breeze stirred the new curtains at the window.

I saw his eyes flash. As they met mine, I knew in my heart that his resolve was formed.

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

2) There is a sentence pattern which is a complex sentence with a clause of time introduced by the conjunction while. Here we find two different kinds of time relation between the actions of the two clauses.

a) The actions may be 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 clause.

Roma said nothing but looked from one face to the other while they discussed plans.

While this chilly interchange was being carried on, the minds of both were fixed on the woman whom Chase had lately married. She sat, still as a statue, while he played the piano.

b) The actions may be partially simultaneous. In this case the action 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 always used in the principal clause while in the subordinate clause either the Past Indefinite or the Past Continuous is found.

They gave each other appraising looks, while Christian regarded them both with a detached interest.

While Christian was still regarding the broken glass in dismay Pheasant appeared in her nightdress. "See what I've done," he exclaimed.

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 a step and Maurice stood in the doorway looking in at him.



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