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CHAPTER 6.  THE PAST CONTINUOUS, THE PAST PERFECT AND THE PAST PERFECT CONTINUOUS

1. Summary of the uses of the English tenses


There are four types of verb tense in English: the Simple, the Continuous, the Perfect, and the Perfect Continuous. Each type of tense has a Present, a Past, and a Future form, as well as other modal forms.

Thus, just as there are four present tenses in English, there are also four past tenses: the Simple Past, the Past Continuous, the Past Perfect, and the Past Perfect Continuous.

As will be shown below, the three forms of each type of tense are closely related in terms of their use and formation. For instance, the Present Continuous, Past Continuous, and Future Continuous tenses are all used to express continuous, ongoing actions; and are all formed from the verb to be followed by the present participle. The differences are that the Present Continuous is formed with the Simple Present of the verb to be, and is used mainly to express present actions; the Past Continuous is formed with the Simple Past of the verb to be, and is used to express past actions; and the Future Continuous is formed with the Simple Future of the verb to be, and is used to express future actions.

The uses of the Simple, Continuous, Perfect, and Perfect Continuous tenses are summarized in the following table.

The Uses of the English Tenses

Type of TenseType of Action Expressed
Simple- actions occurring at regular intervals
 - general truths, or situations existing for a period of time
 - non-continuous actions
  
Continuous- continuous, ongoing actions
  
Perfect- non-continuous actions completed before a certain time
  
Perfect Continuous- continuous, ongoing actions completed before a certain time

 

2. The past continuous


a. Use
The Past Continuous tense is used to express continuous, ongoing actions which took place in the past. In the following examples, the verbs in the Past Continuous tense are underlined.
e.g. He was traveling in Europe last summer.
      They were playing tennis yesterday afternoon.

The Past Continuous tense is frequently used to refer to an ongoing action which was taking place when something else occurred in the past.
e.g. I was washing the dishes when the telephone rang.
      We were entertaining friends when the parcel arrived.

In the first example, the use of the Past Continuous tense indicates that the action of washing the dishes was taking place at the time when the telephone rang. In the second example, the use of the Past Continuous tense indicates that the action of entertaining friends was taking place at the time when the parcel arrived.

b. Formation
The Past Continuous tense is formed from the Simple Past of the auxiliary to be, followed by the present participle of the verb. For example, the Past Continuous of the verb to work is conjugated as follows:

I was working
you were working
he was working
she was working
it was working
we were working
they were working

See Exercise 1.

c. Questions and negative statements
As is the case with other English tenses, questions and negative statements in the Past Continuous are formed using the auxiliary.

Questions are formed by placing the auxiliary before the subject. For example:

Affirmative StatementQuestion
  I was working.  Was I working?
  They were working.  Were they working?

Negative statements are formed by placing the word not after the
auxiliary. For example:

Affirmative StatementNegative Statement
  I was working.  I was not working.
  They were working.  They were not working.

In spoken English, the contractions wasn't and weren't are often used.

Negative questions are formed by placing the auxiliary before the subject, and the word not after the subject. However, when contractions are used, the contracted form of not immediately follows the auxiliary. The following are examples of negative questions with and without contractions:

Without ContractionsWith Contractions
  Was I not working?  Wasn't I working?
  Were they not working?  Weren't they working?

Tag questions are formed using the auxiliary. In the following examples, the negative tag questions are underlined. Contractions are usually used in negative tag questions. For example:

Affirmative StatementAffirmative Statement with Tag Question
  I was working.  I was working, wasn't I?
  They were working.  They were working, weren't they?

See Exercises 2 and 3.

 

3. The past perfect


a. Use
The Past Perfect tense is used to refer to a non-continuous action in the past, which was already completed by the time another action in the past took place. In the following examples, the verbs in the Past Perfect tense are underlined.
e.g. She had heard the news before I saw her.
      I had finished my work by the time the clock struck twelve.

In the preceding examples, the verbs had heard and had finished are in the Past Perfect tense, and the verbs saw and struck are in the Simple Past. The use of the Past Perfect tense indicates that the actions of hearing the news and finishing the work were already completed by the time the actions expressed by the verbs in the Simple Past took place.

b. Formation
The Past Perfect tense is formed from the Simple Past of the auxiliary to have, followed by the past participle of the verb.

The Simple Past of to have is had. In spoken English, the auxiliary had is often contracted to 'd. For example, the Past Perfect of the verb to work is conjugated as follows:

Without ContractionsWith Contractions
   
  I had worked  I'd worked
  you had worked  you'd worked
  he had worked  he'd worked
  she had worked  she'd worked
  it had worked  it'd worked
  we had worked  we'd worked
  they had worked  they'd worked

The contraction it'd is less frequently used than the other contractions, since it is more difficult to pronounce.

See Exercise 4.

c. Questions and negative statements
As is the case with other English tenses, questions and negative statements in the Past Perfect tense are formed using the auxiliary.

Questions are formed by placing the auxiliary before the subject. For example:

Affirmative StatementQuestion
  I had worked.  Had I worked?
  They had worked.  Had they worked?

Negative statements are formed by placing the word not after the auxiliary. For example:

Affirmative StatementNegative Statement
  I had worked.  I had not worked.
  They had worked.  They had not worked.

In spoken English, the following contraction is often used:

Without ContractionWith Contraction
  had not  hadn't

Negative questions are formed by placing the auxiliary before the subject, and the word not after the subject. However, when contractions are used, the contracted form of not follows immediately after the auxiliary. For example:

Without ContractionWith Contraction
  Had I not worked?  Hadn't I worked?
  Had they not worked?  Hadn't they worked?

Tag questions are formed using the auxiliary. In the following examples, the negative tag questions are underlined. Contractions are usually used in negative tag questions.

Affirmative StatementAffirmative Statement with Tag Question
  I had worked.  I had worked, hadn't I?
  They had worked.  They had worked, hadn't they?

See Exercises 5 and 6.

 

4. The past perfect continuous


a. Use
The Past Perfect Continuous tense is used to refer to a continuous, ongoing action in the past which was already completed by the time another action in the past took place. In the following examples, the verbs in the Past Perfect Continuous tense are underlined.
e.g. I had been waiting for two months by the time I received the reply.
      He had been thinking about his friends shortly before they called.

In the preceding examples, the verbs had been waiting and had been thinking are in the Past Perfect Continuous tense, and the verbs received and called are in the Simple Past. The use of the Past Perfect Continuous tense indicates that the actions of waiting and thinking were continuous, and were completed by the time the actions expressed by the verbs in the Simple Past took place.

b. Formation
The Past Perfect Continuous tense is formed from the Past Perfect of the auxiliary to be, followed by the present participle of the verb. For example, the Past Perfect Continuous tense of the verb to work is conjugated as follows:

I had been working
you had been working
he had been working
she had been working
it had been working
we had been working
they had been working

The auxiliary had is often contracted to 'd in spoken English.

See Exercise 7.

c. Questions and negative statements
As is the case with other English tenses, questions and negative statements in the Past Perfect Continuous tense are formed using the first auxiliary.

Questions are formed by placing the first auxiliary before the subject. For example:

Affirmative StatementQuestion
  I had been working.  Had I been working?
  They had been working.  Had they been working?

Negative statements are formed by placing the word not after the first auxiliary. For example:

Affirmative StatementNegative Statement
  I had been working.  I had not been working.
  They had been working.  They had not been working.

Negative questions are formed by placing the first auxiliary before the subject, and the word not after the subject. However, when contractions are used, the contracted form of not follows immediately after the first auxiliary. For example:

Without ContractionsWith Contractions
  Had I not been working?  Hadn't I been working?
  Had they not been working?  Hadn't they been working?

Tag questions are formed using the first auxiliary. In the following examples, the negative tag questions are underlined. Contractions are usually used in negative tag questions.

Affirmative StatementAffirmative Statement with Tag Question
  I had been working.  I had been working, hadn't I?
  They had been working.  They had been working, hadn't they?

See Exercises 8 and 9.

 

5. Summary of the formation of the English present and past tenses


The following table summarizes the formation of the English present and past tenses.

TenseAuxiliaryVerb Form
Simple Presentdo/does *bare infinitive **
Present Continuousam/is/arepresent participle
Present Perfecthave/haspast participle
Present Perfect Continuoushave/has  beenpresent participle
   
Simple Pastdid *bare infinitive ***
Past Continuouswas/werepresent participle
Past Perfecthadpast participle
Past Perfect Continuoushad beenpresent participle

* In the Simple Present and Simple Past tenses, the auxiliaries are used only for emphasis, and for the formation of questions and negative statements. Auxiliaries are never used with the Simple Present or Simple Past of the verb to be.

** When used without the auxiliary, the third person singular of the Simple Present has the ending s.

*** When the verb is used without the auxiliary, the Simple Past form of the verb is used. For regular verbs, and for many irregular verbs, the Simple Past has the same form as the past participle.

See Exercise 10.

 

6. Emphatic statements


In spoken English, words can be emphasized by being pronounced with a heavier stress than usual. This type of emphasis is usually indicated in written English by means of italics or underlining. In the following examples, emphasized words are indicated by means of underlining.

Emphatic statements are often used in conversation; for instance, when one speaker is contradicting another.
e.g. "I don't believe he works very hard."
      "Yes, he does work hard."

When it is desired to emphasize a verb, it is generally the first auxiliary which is stressed. For instance, in the sentence I am working hard, the verb can be emphasized by stressing the auxiliary am.
e.g. I am working hard.

Usually, no auxiliary is required for affirmative statements in the Simple Present and Simple Past. However, in order to make such statements emphatic, for verbs other than the verb to be, the auxiliary to do is used, followed by the bare infinitive. For example, in the Simple Present, the emphatic form of the verb to work is formed with the Simple Present of the auxiliary to do, as shown below:

Affirmative StatementEmphatic Affirmative Statement
  I work.  I do work.
  You work.  You do work.
  He works.  He does work.
  She works.  She does work.
  It works.  It does work.
  We work.  We do work.
  They work.  They do work.

In the Simple Past, the emphatic form of the verb to work is formed with the Simple Past of the auxiliary to do, as shown below:

Affirmative StatementEmphatic Affirmative Statement
  I worked.  I did work.
  You worked.  You did work.
  He worked.  He did work.
  She worked.  She did work.
  It worked.  It did work.
  We worked.  We did work.
  They worked.  They did work.

For the emphatic form of the Simple Present of the verb to be, no auxiliary is used. Instead, the verb itself is stressed. For example:

Affirmative StatementEmphatic Affirmative Statement
  I am ready.  I am ready.
  It is ready.  It is ready.
  They are ready.  They are ready.

Similarly, for the emphatic form of the Simple Past of the verb to be, no auxiliary is used. Instead, the verb itself is stressed. For example:

Affirmative StatementEmphatic Affirmative Statement
  I was ready.  I was ready.
  It was ready.  It was ready.
  They were ready.  They were ready.

Examples of emphatic statements in all of the present and past tenses are given in the following table:

TenseAffirmative StatementEmphatic Statement
  Simple Present  I work.  I do work.
  Present Continuous  I am working.  I am working.
  Present Perfect  I have worked.  I have worked.
  Present Perfect Continuous  I have been working.  I have been working.
   
  Simple Past  I worked.  I did work.
  Past Continuous  I was working.  I was working.
  Past Perfect  I had worked.  I had worked.
  Past Perfect Continuous  I had been working.  I had been working.
   
  Simple Present of to be  I am ready.  I am ready.
  Simple Past of to be  I was ready.  I was ready.


It should be noted that questions may be emphasized in the same way as statements.
e.g. Did it work?
      Are they ready?

Sometimes it is desired to emphasize a negative statement containing the word not. In spoken English, often both the auxiliary and the word not are stressed, but in written English, usually only the word not is underlined or written in italics. For example:

Negative StatementEmphatic Negative Statement
  He does not know the answer.  He does not know the answer.

When a contracted form of the word not is used, it is generally the auxiliary which is stressed in an emphatic statement. For example:

Negative StatementEmphatic Negative Statement
  He doesn't know the answer.  He doesn't know the answer.

See Exercise 11.

 

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