English verbs that are conjugated express a combination of tense, aspect, voice, and mood. Tense is the grammaticalized expression of time and roughly corresponds to actual time. Aspect is the grammaticalized expression of temporal structure and corresponds to duration. Mood is the expression of modality, or the expression of possibility, necessity, and contingency. Voice is the expression of relationships between predicate and nominal functions such as subject and object. The past progressive typically refers to verbs in the past tense, progressive aspect, indicative mood, and active voice.
The past progressive can be defined as a verb form that expresses an incomplete or ongoing action or state that began, continued, and ended in the past but over a longer period of time than the completed actions expressed by the simple past. For example, the sentence The baby was crying contains the verb phrase was crying, which is an example of the past progressive. The use of the past progressive in this example indicates both that the baby began crying in the past and continued to cry over a period of time before stopping.
Formation of the Past Progressive
The past progressive, like the majority of verb forms in English, is periphrastic. Periphrasis means that a “phrase of two or more words that perform a single grammatical function that would otherwise be expressed by the inflection of a single word.” Verbs in the past progressive are therefore formed by a past tense form of the verb be followed by a present participle. The verb phrase patterns for the past progressive are as follows:
- first person singular – was + present participle – I was making a pot roast.
- second person singular – were + present participle – Were you burning the garbage?
- third person singular – was + present participle – The man was wearing a top hat.
- first person plural – were + present participle – We were raising chickens.
- second person plural – was + present participle – You were publishing a newsletter.
- third person plural – were + present participle – They were supplying the glitter.
Notice that, similar to the present tense forms in the present progressive, all past tense forms of the verb be are irregular.
Use of the Past Progressive
Because the past progressive expresses ongoing or incomplete actions or states in the past, the verb form most often occurs in sentences that express the following situations:
- Past actions or states that progressed in time in the past
- Past actions or states that ended from an interruption including specific times
- Past actions or states that occurred simultaneously
- Describing the atmosphere of the past
- Past actions or states that are repetitive and irritating
- My daughter was whining all morning.
- She was showering when the doorbell rang.
- The soup was boiling while the bread was baking.
- The storm clouds were rolling in as I drove down the highway.
- My sister was always stealing my clothes.
The following visual illustrates the uses of the progressive aspects of English verbs:
The past progressive expresses ongoing actions or states in the past.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Kilby, David. 1984. Descriptive syntax and the English verb. Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm.
Leech, Geoffrey N. 2004. Meaning and the English verb. Harlow, English: Pearson Longman.