Grammar-QuizzesVerb PhrasesVerbsPast › Past Progressive

Past Progressive

Report past temporary, repeated, or background activity

standing
 

 

Permanent (having duration) vs. Temporary Change

PERMANENT / THE USUAL — PAST

A verb in the past expresses that an activity, event, or state happened and ended in the past. No particular focus is placed on the timing. The action (1) may have occurred once or (2) may have occurred repetitively or continuously. A past habitual activity, event or state is more permanent than temporary.

SUBJECT PREDICATE COMP / ADJUNCT
NP PAST V NP / PP

Alison

lived

in San Francisco after finishing college.

Alison

commuted

to work every day.

Her office building

stood

on the corner on and Market Street.

Alison

loved

her job in marketing.

TEMPORARY CHANGE — PAST PROGRESSIVE

A verb in the past progressive expresses that an activity or event went on for a while and then ended in the past. Particular focus is placed on the timing. The action (1) was repetitive or continuous and/or (2) may have been a temporary change from the usual activity.                                               

SUBJ PREDICATE COMP / ADJUNCT
NP PAST PROG. V NP / PP

Alison

was living

in San Mateo while attending Stanford.

Alison

was commuting

to Palo Alto for four years.

Alison

was standing

on the train platform.  

Alison

~was loving 

her job in marketing. 

 

~increasing in usage; normally static verbs are not used in progressive form. This wording expresses an internal view of the experience, ongoing or repeated. See stative verb.
complement – a word, phrase, or clause that is required in a sentence to complete its meaning.
commute – to regularly travel a long distance to get to work

 

Word Categories: N – Noun; V – Verb; Aux – Auxiliary; Adj – Adjective; Adv – Adverb; P –Preposition; Det –Determiner.

Phrasal Categories: NP – Noun Phrase; VP – Verb Phrase; AdjP – Adjective Phrase; AdvP – Adverb Phrase; PP – Prepositional Phrase; DP – Determinative Phrase.

Clausal Categories: Cls – clause; F – finite clause; NF – nonfinite clause (Ger – gerund; Inf – infinitive; PPart – past participle).

Word Functions: Subj – subject; Pred – predicate/predicator; Compcomplement: elements required by an expression to complete its meaning (DO – direct object; IO – indirect object);  Adjunctadjunct: elements not required by an expression to complete its meaning (Subord – subordinator; Coord – coordinator); Suplsupplement: a clause or phrase added onto a clause that is not closely related to the central thought or structure of the main clause.

 

 

 

 

Multiple vs. Singular Timing

Express ongoing or one-time activity

 

 

Multiple (repetitive) Action vs. Singular Action

MULTIPLE ACTIONS

Verbs in both the past tense and past progressive may express that an activity or event was repetitive—happening multiple times. The difference is that the progressive places emphasis on the timing but the past does not. (In such a case, context is required for clues about the timing.)

SUBJECT PREDICATE COMPLEMENT
NP V / VP NP / PP

Alison 

attended (habitual)

was attending (habitual)

used to attend (habitual)

lectures on art history.

Alison

commuted

was commuting

used to commute

to Palo Alto for four years.

She

waited  

was waiting

used to wait

for the train everyday. 

She 

ran 

was running

used to run

to catch her bus everyday. 

SINGULAR ACTION

A verb in past tense can be used for an activity, event or state that is a singular in occurrence—happening once. The past pins the action to a time in the past. "This happened."                                                                                                                                                                                                          

SUBJECT PREDICATE COMPLEMENT
NP PAST VERB NP / PP

Alison

attended

a lecture on Byzantine Art.

Alison

traveled

 

to conference in New York

Alison

waited

 

one hour for the train today.

Alison

waited

one hour for the train today.

 

would / used to –  Would / Used to  and used to / be used to.

 

 

 

 

Background Activity

Set the scene for the "main event"

 

 

Focus Activity vs. Background Activity

FOCUS

A verb in the past tense expresses an activity with emphasis on the activity and not its timing. "This happened." The activity is the focus. When the past progressive is paired with the past (the focus), a backgrounding effect is created.

We saw two cars crash.

We walked along the sidewalk.

I had a beer with the President yesterday.

He said that he would like to run for office again.

Jessica ate dinner with Justin Timberlake at a chic, new restaurant.

Something on her plate started to move.

Madonna said that she still couldn't find a good man.

A handsome young guy walked by our table and her eyes lit up.

BACKGROUND ACTIVITY

A verb in the past progressive can express an activity which is secondary to the primary activity in the other clause. That is, the clause with the past progressive "sets the scene" for the activity in the other clause which is the focus, "the main event".

As we were walking along the sidewalk, we saw two cars crash.
 

I was having a beer with the President yesterday, and he said that he would like to run for office again.  

Jessica was eating dinner with Justin Timberlake at a chic, new restaurant in Beverly Hills when something on her plate started to move.

As Madonna was saying that she still couldn't find a good man,  a handsome young man walked by our table and her eyes lit up.  

 

backgrounding – this pairing of tenses is also used for "name dropping" (mentioning the name of a famous person to impress others.)

Also see After/ Before/ When – time-relative activities

 

 

 

 

Past Adverbs (time expressions)

Specify the timing of an action or activity

walking
 

 

Past Time Expressions — definite vs. indefinite timing

DEFINITE TIMING

Adverbial expressions with definite timing are used when actions can be marked on a timeline (clock/calendar); they have endpoints/goals. Compare: She was driving to work yesterday. (definite timing, it ended when she arrived at work) to She drove to work. (indefinite timing, "timeless", no endpoint, a routine).

BOTH PROG. & NONPROGRESSIVE BOTH PROG. & NONPROGRESSIVE

She was driving to work at noon

She drove to work at noon

She was driving to work yesterday

She drove to work yesterday

AT, IN, ON THAT / LAST…

at 6:00 AM(an earlier time—at noon yesterday, at midnight last week)

a day ago (second, minute, hour, week, month, year)  

on January 10 (an earlier date—last Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, January 31, May 1, 2020)

last night (week, month, winter, year) 

yesterday

in January (an earlier month, year, century— the 1990s, the 19th century)

that¹ Monday (week, month, year)  

those weeks (days, months, years)

as we spoke (a relative point in time: when they arrived, as soon as she knew)

then

still (with a negative verb: no longer)

⇒ Used with progressive.

 

INDEFINITE TIMING

Adverbial expressions with indefinite timing are used when activities or states happen "sometime", not related to a timeline. The precise time is not important. The focus is on the activity or state. These adverbs express duration (a period of time) or repetition (the interval of occurrence).                                                

BOTH PROG. & NONPROGRESSIVE BOTH PROG. & NONPROGRESSIVE

She was driving to work constantly.

She drove to work during the week.

She was driving to work often.

She drove to work often.

DURATION REPETITION

temporarily(continuously, briefly, momentarily) [imperfective, ongoing] ⇒ Mostly progressive.

repeatedly(constantly, continuously, again and again, perpetually, eternally)⇒ Switch to "keep" with progressive.³

for a moment (ten minutes, a week, a month, for a while², a little while, a day,  forever)  ⇒ Often present perfect.

always (routinely, customarily, usually, in general, normally, often, sometimes, hardly ever, never)

during the week (month, year, etc.) ⇒ Mostly nonprogressive.

at night (noon, midnight, sunset)

in spring (winter, summer, June, July)

from Monday to Tuesday(1 PM to 2 PM, morning to night)

on Mondays (Tuesday, Sundays, etc.)

most days (nights, weekends, etc.)

while it was warm(a relative period of time: when, if, whenever, before, after)  before sunrise  (after)

every / each / every other  (hour, day, night, week, month, year, May, spring)

 

 

*incorrect / ~awkward or borderline usage

¹ time expressions such as that month or those month  indicate time that is distant, past or perhaps future. When used with past tense, we understand the timing as past time.

² for a while (PP) – can be understood in two ways: (1) having some amount of duration, or (2) being very temporary

³ keep + verb+ing – Repetition can be expressed by using the "keep" (I keep walking.  He kept smiling.)  The progressive with "repeatedly" (*I am walking to class repeatedly. )sounds awkward.

ago (prep.) – is originally from "agone" meaning past. It is currently analyzed as a post-position preposition (Huddleston 7 4.2)

last (Adj) – is the superlative form of latelate, later, last.

Other past tense practice pages:   Past vs. Past Progressive ProgressiveWould / Used toReporting SourcePast Series, After v. Before v. When 

 

 

 

 

Past Progressive

Word Order

 

 

Past Progressive Word Order

AUXILIARY VERB SUBJECT AUXILIARY VERB MAIN VERB ADVERBIAL PHRASE
STATEMENT         
 

Alison

was

living

in San Francisco.

 

Alison and her friend 

were

living

in San Francisco.

QUESTION        

Was 

Alison

 

living   

in San Francisco?

Were  

Alison and her friend

 

living   

in San Francisco?

NEGATIVE        

 

Alison

wasn't  (not) 

living

in San Francisco.

 

Alison and her friend 

were n' t  (not) 

not living

in San Francisco.

†EMPHASIS        

 

Alison

was

living

in San Francisco.

 

Alison and her friend

were   

living

in San Francisco. 

†Use emphasis word order when contradicting or stating that the opposite is true: "I think that Alison wasn't living in San Francisco."   "No, she was living there." 

 

 

 

 

Common Mistakes

Errors and Solutions

 

 

ERRORS

~I took the train when I was living in San Francisco. (not incorrect)

I was getting lost several times.  

~I was living there since June 2010.

SOLUTION 

I took the train when I lived in San Francisco.

I took the train while I was living in San Francisco.

I got lost several times.   (Use nonprogressive with "several times".)

I kept getting / was getting lost all the time.

I was living there in June 2010.  (I lived there temporarily during that period.)

I have lived (t)here since June 2010. (I still live here.)

 

*incorrect / ~awkward

 

 

 

Practice

The San Francisco Street Scene

Union Square in San Francisco
Union Square in San Francisco, California
 

Read the Paragraph

As I (walk) in downtown San Francisco, I saw so many things that were  so San Francisco. Union Square, in the center of the city, was filled with people who (go) here and there. People (look) at paintings, jewelry and photographs along the sidewalks as they were walking. A huge balloon (float) above the people as they walked across the square. Buses, cars, and taxis (rush) around the square, but inside the square it was peaceful and calm.  On one side of the square, a man (sing) opera while his partner did a series of magic tricks.

On the other side of the square, a man and woman painted silver (stand) like statues. A homeless man (sit) on a curb talking to his dog, and the dog (bark) back at him. Two men, who (wear) brightly-colored costumes with orange feathers and who (talk) a mile a minute, nearly ran into me.  The sound of a fire engine (approach) as I descended into the BART (subway) station and left the noisy city above.

 

a mile a minute (expression) – very fast, rapidly

approach (V) – come closer, nearer

bark (V) – the sound a dog makes

costume (N) – a set of clothes worn by an actor or performer

curb (N) – edge of the sidewalk next to the street

descended (V) – went down (stairs)

float (V) – move slowly, stay up in the air

here and there – in every direction

hurriedly (adv.) – moving in a fast manner; at a quick pace

nearly ran into (V) – almost crashed into or knocked over

scene (Adj) – the sights, sounds, and activity of a place

so + noun (expression) – typical of a place or person, That's so you, or That's so Parisian.

statue (N) – a figure, often of a famous person, made of stone or bronze

square (N) – a place that is the central plaza, an open city space for walking and enjoying

 

 

 

 

Select the verb forms for past or past progressive.

  1. Select the response from the list that best completes the sentence. 
  2. Compare your response to the feedback by clicking the "check" button.

 

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Other past tense practice pages:   Past vs. Past Progressive ProgressiveWould / Used toReporting SourcePast Series, After v. Before v. When