Know Past Continuous as Background with examples

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He Was Sailing Around the World

Past Continuous Tense can be used to give background to events that began and ended in the past. This is often used in novels and short fiction alike.  

To do so, use the Verbs “was” and “were” + ing in a series. For example, you may read in a classic novel about pirates, “he was sailing around the world.” To expand upon this, a passage from nautical fiction in Past Continuous Tense may read: 

He was sailing around the world.

He was approaching the world’s end and fearing falling off the edge.

Yet, he was feeling strong, he had fought sea monsters and won…

Historically speaking, novels have been written in the Past Simple Tense (often called Narrative Tense). However, these Past Tense novels often contain every one of English’s twelve tenses. For example, Virginia Woolf combines tense like this:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges. Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

In the novel Mrs.Dalloway, there are examples of past and present tense forms throughout this excerpt. 

While writing, it’s fine to use the Past Continuous tense as Woolf did in the lines “Rumpelmayer’s men were coming,” but it’s best to combine Past Continuous with other Verb forms to not bore the reader.

Examples of Past Continuous Tense as Background

  • The day was starting, the birds were chirping and the store owners were busy opening their shops. A red car arrived and a woman stepped out of it. 
  • Last week, when I was waiting at the train station, I saw a beautiful lady. 
  • While everyone was busy preparing for the test, Ana was playing video games all night. She didn’t care about her grades. 

Let’s practice 

Q1: Try making your own sentence. 

Q2: Share something about your childhood.  

Q3: What were you doing last weekend? 

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