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Intermediate level

The past continuous or past perfect continuous tense?

Episode 191217 / 17 Dec 2019

This week's question

What's the difference betwen the past continuous tense and past perfect continous tense? - Anne

Answer this

Which 3 things do the past continuous and past perfect continuous tenses have in common?

Language points

Both tenses
Both the past continuous and past perfect continous take place in the past, both are useful narrative tenses and both are continuous tenses, which means they are unlikely to use state verbs.

Past continuous
The past continuous is formed using 'was' or 'were' + verb-ing. It talks about actions in progress at a specific past time. 

  • At 8 o'clock last night, I was watching TV.
  • This time last month we were flying off on holiday.

The 'interrupted past'
The past continuous tense is often used in combination with the past simple tense. This when two actions happen together: a longer (usually past continuous) action, and a shorter action (usually in the past simple). The shorter past simple action often interrupts the longer past continuous one. We joint these two tenses using time words 'when' and 'while'.

  • I was sleeping peacefully when suddenly the phone rang.
  • While I was showering, the phone rang.

Past perfect continuous
The past perfect continuous is formed using 'had' + 'been' + verb-ing. Like the past perfect simple, it talks about a past action that was in progress before another past action. 

  • I had been cooking soup for 20 minutes when the phone rang.

Results
The past perfect continuous can show that the result of one action relates to another - like consequences.

  • I had been working all day so I was very tired.

The answer

Both take place in the past, both are useful narrative tenses and both are continuous tenses, which means they are unlikely to use state verbs.

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