Why use this? What is this tense for?
- Describe an action that continued in the past
- Questions & Answers
The tense changes the demand for information:
What did you do? = What started? What finished? Give me the summary!
What were you doing? = What was happening? What action was continuing at this point? I want to know about actions before something else.
People who are investigating locations and actions will use this tense: parents, teachers, partners, police!
What were you doing at 11pm? They want to know exactly which action was continuing at this time.
What did you do at 11pm? Asks about actions that started or finished at 11pm.
- The postman arrived
- The postman rang the doorbell
- Nobody answered the doorbell
- The postman left
Which question is better?
- Why didn’t you answer the doorbell?
- Why weren’t you answering the doorbell?
(1) asking for the reason, the summary – most usual question
(2) asking about why the action was not happening – not usual question, but possible!
Why didn’t you answer the doorbell?
Which tense works to answer this question?
- I slept
- I was sleeping
I slept = action is finished. When did it start? When did it finish? Before the postman arrived? After? At the same time? It’s not clear.
I was sleeping when the postman delivered my new stick.
This shows that the action started before the other action (postman delivered) and continued after.
Note: Usually we respond to questions in the same tense, but in this case we need to explain an action that continues, so there is no other choice!
– What were you doing when I called you? Why didn’t you answer?
– Sorry, I was having a shower!
This shows the action started before and continued after the telephone call.
This shows the subject was between the start and the end of the action.
We can use a location to answer this question.
- I was in the shower
- I was on the bus
- I was in bed
There is no need to give the detail of the action.