Past Continuous 3

Why use this? What is this tense for?

  1. Describe an action that continued in the past
  2. Questions & Answers
  3. Duration

When, While, And

I was taking a shower when the phone rang.

The phone rang while I was taking a shower.

She was shouting and I was jumping

While = during a longer period
When = specific point
And = at the same time

These are general rules but do not always apply, as common sense will override.

I was watching the match while talking to my friend
= talking was longer.. ? Maybe…

To specify which was shorter, we can use the past simple:

I watched the match while talking to my friend
= talking is longer

I was taking a shower. The phone was ringing.
I was taking a shower and the phone was ringing.
I was taking to my boss and reading an email.
= both actions happen at same time for same duration

The phone was ringing while I was taking a shower.
= taking was longer (common sense)

Remember: you present the image of the action (using past continuous) rather than a finished one (past simple).

I was talking to my friend while watching a match
= watching was longer or same duration, but we can see the image of this person talking with their friend

I was watching a match while talking to my friend
= talking is longer (usually) and the talking is the more significant action.  The match is less significant.

Advanced phrases

  • While + past continuous = during a longer period
  • While + past simple = during a specific point
  • When + past continuous = at a specific point during an action
  • When + past simple = action finished at a specific point

You can mix all these together to create specific descriptions

  1. I was training when he was shopping
  2. I was training while he was shopping
  3. I trained when he shopped
  4. I trained when he was shopping

(1) I was doing this action at this specific point during the other action

(2) I was doing this action during this other action

(3) I finished this action at the time he did that action

(4) I finished this action at the time he was doing that action


Best practice

Confused? Don’t worry. Usually, use while+ continuous to express the longer action. Use when+ past simple if you start the sentence with continuous.  Use either when or while with the same tense to show actions at the same time.

I was watching TV when you called.

I was in the bath when the postman knocked.

We were in the cinema at 7.30.

He couldn’t come on Saturday, he was working.

While you were sleeping, he won the tournament.

He was cycling home when it started to rain.

I was sitting on the train when the dog farted.

Don’t forget exceptions :

x: I was understanding (this means I was sympathetic, not comprehending!)

o: I understood

x: I was wanting

o: I wanted