What’s the Difference? PAST Continuous & PAST PERFECT Continuous 🤔

Lesson Overview

Lesson Summary 

Do you know when to use the past continuous & past perfect continuous? What’s the difference? These English tenses are narrative tenses (perfect tor telling stories in English!) and very similar, but there are some differences you need to know. Learn and practise with me now, for perfect English grammar!

Answers to the practice questions ⬇️ ⬇️ ⬇️

1. We had been waiting for the bus for hours when it finally arrived.
2. Last Monday, at 8 am I was eating my breakfast.
3. They were walking/had been walking home when it started to rain.
4. We had been living there for months before we finally met the neighbours.
5. Jag was listening/had been listening to the radio when someone knocked on the door.
6. It was raining/had been raining so the ground was wet.

Video Transcript
Section 1
Oh hey there I’m Emma from mmmEnglish! Today’s grammar lesson is an exciting one, we’re gonna practise the grammar that you need to accurately tell stories in English.

We’ll focus on two important past tenses, the past continuous and the past perfect continuous.

Now what I really want to do is help you to understand the difference between these two tenses, when should you use the past continuous and when should you use the past perfect continuous?

That way we can help you to tell stories accurately and improve your English grammar and as usual if you watch the lesson through, I’ve got some questions to help you test your skills and to practise what you learn during this lesson which is super important.

So let’s dive in!

So like I said, let’s dive straight in. Why do we use the past continuous? We use it to say that an action was in progress at a precise moment in the past.

  • What were you doing at 3pm on Friday?
    I was washing my hair.

Now this tense is often used with the past simple tense to talk about two past actions that took place at the same time. Like:

  • I washed my hair.
  • The hot water ran out.

So the longer action goes in the past continuous tense and it’s interrupted by the short action in the past simple.

  • I was washing my hair when the water ran out.

Past Continuous Tense

You’re probably quite familiar with the structure of past continuous sentences in English, right?

In all continuous tenses, the auxiliary verb be is essential, right? In the past continuous, our auxiliary verb be becomes was or were depending on the subject.

  • I was running.
  • They were running.

Easy right?

Past Perfect Continuous Tense

Now let’s compare that with the past perfect continuous. It’s similar to the past continuous but rather than helping us to show two actions taking place at the same time in the past, we can use the past perfect continuous to show that one action was in progress before a second action started.

  • I had been doing the dishes when John arrived.

I was doing the dishes but I stopped doing them when John arrived and I hadn’t finished doing them yet.

Right that action is still incomplete so when John leaves, I’ll probably have to finish doing the dishes right I’ll go back to that action.

Let’s look at the structure for a minute because it’s obviously a little different from the past continuous sentence, isn’t it? The past perfect continuous sentence has different auxiliary verbs.

Can you see them?

Had and being followed by our main verb in -ing form which is common for all continuous tenses.

  • I had been doing the dishes.
  • They had been waiting for a long time.
  • She had been feeling unwell since lunchtime.

And of course, for negative sentences, we just add not.

  • I had not been doing the dishes. I hadn’t been doing the dishes.

I’m really just giving you a quick overview here because what we really want to focus on today is when to use the past continuous and when to use the past perfect continuous.

We want to focus on the difference. If you want to study and to practise a bit more with the past perfect continuous tense, I’ve got a whole lesson dedicated to it. It’s right up there.

When it comes to grammar, I’ve got your back, don’t I? I have a whole grammar playlist so it’s worth bookmarking it so that you know where to find all of my grammar lessons when you need to practise, right?

So let’s compare them!

Taken at face value, the past continuous and the past perfect continuous do seem pretty similar. They both describe an ongoing or continuous action.

They both describe actions that took place in the past and they are both used a lot in combination with the simple past but they aren’t the same.

There are two main differences between the past continuous and the past perfect continuous that I want to share with you today.

Difference #1 – order of the events

And the first one is the order of the events in the past in relation to each other. The past continuous expresses an action in progress at a particular moment in the past.

  • I was studying when the doorbell rang.

So let’s say that these two actions happened yesterday at 3pm. I was in the process of studying at that moment. At the same time, the doorbell rang at 3pm yesterday.

  • I was studying when the doorbell rang.

We use when to join these two actions. It shows us that the two actions took place at the same time right and the tenses give us information about the nature of these actions.

Studying is a long action, it’s a continuing action but the doorbell ringing is a short action, right? Both actions happen at the same time but one action, the short one, interrupts the other one.

The difference with the past perfect continuous is that it expresses an action in progress before a particular moment in the past.

  • I had been studying when you arrived.

So here I spent some time studying and wasn’t finished yet but later at some point the doorbell rang.

We can still use the conjunction when to join these actions but we can also use the conjunction before.

  • I had been studying before you arrived.

Using when emphasises that the action was unfinished when the second action takes place. But using before emphasises that the first action started at an earlier point in time than the second action.

Okay, but what was I doing when the doorbell rang? Was I studying? Well actually, we don’t know. I might have been studying at that moment or I might not.

Whether or not I was studying at that moment when the doorbell rang is not really important and this is a big difference compared to the past continuous.

What’s important in this sentence is that the studying had started and it wasn’t finished yet. So even if it wasn’t necessarily in progress at the exact moment that the shorter action happened, when the doorbell rang,

it’s in progress, right? It isn’t complete.

Okay so listen up because what I’m about to tell you is really important. The idea of an action in progress in the past perfect continuous, it’s a little bit abstract and by abstract, I mean that the progression of that action can go on for many hours or days or even years.

So using this tense means that it isn’t clear whether the action was actually happening at that exact moment. I’m going to give you one more example to show you what I mean.

  • Julia was cooking when the guests arrived.
  • Julia had been cooking for hours when the guests arrived.

So in this sentence, Julia had to stop what she was doing and go to the door and let her guests in right. The arrival of her guests interrupted her and interrupted her cooking but in this sentence here Julia has started cooking probably long before the guests arrived.

The food wasn’t ready when they did arrive. The cooking was incomplete. So whether or not she was actually in the process of cooking when her guests arrived at the door doesn’t really matter. It’s not important.

The fact is that the cooking wasn’t complete so they didn’t have anything to eat so that means that while the past continuous shows us a long continuing action that is in progress at a specific moment in the past, the past perfect continuous shows us a long continuing action that isn’t necessarily in progress at a specific moment in past.

But the consequence of that action has an impact on that specific moment in the past. The impact is that her guests are there but there’s no food to eat. She hasn’t finished right so that is the impact on that particular moment. Do you see the difference there?


I’m going to come back to that point about the consequence a little later on in this video but first, I want to point out that when we’re comparing the past continuous and the past perfect continuous, it is really important to pay attention to how we talk about time in our sentences.

If you are paying close attention, you might have noticed something that I’ve used in the past perfect continuous sentences but not in the past continuous ones.

  • Julia was cooking when the telephone rang.

Julia had been cooking for several hours but the meal still wasn’t ready when her guests arrived.

So can you see what I’m talking about? It’s a time reference. So in the past perfect continuous, we often specify a duration or a period of time, of course, using our adverbs for and since, very common in the perfect tenses. And we do this to really emphasise the duration or the length of that action.

  • She had been studying since 7am.

Not: She was studying since 7am. That’s incorrect.

  • They had been cooking for hours.

Not: They were cooking for hours.

If you want to reference time in the past continuous, you’ve got to be precise because it’s a tense that shows us an action in progress at a specific moment in the past.

  • At 3pm last Wednesday, Julia was cooking.

It’s really specific, right? Are you with me? Great!

Difference #2 – action and consequence

The other way that we can compare these tenses is when we use them to express action and consequence. So both the past continuous and the past perfect continuous can be used to give some context and express the result of an action.

So that means that one action informs the state of another action. A past continuous action like it was raining informs the state of a second action. We can say:

  • It was raining so the ground was wet.

So the result of the rain, the consequence of the rain is that the ground was wet. Logical, right?

Why was the ground wet? Because raindrops were falling from the sky at that exact moment in time and they were making the ground wet.

Okay so what changes when we use the past perfect continuous then?

  • It had been raining so the ground was wet.

Is it still raining? The rain has stopped but the consequence of the rain, the wet ground, that’s important. That’s explaining why the ground was wet.

I’ll show you one more example.

  • She was working hard and the presentation was almost finished.

So the action is all the hard work right it’s an action and it’s still ongoing, it’s still in progress. The result of all of that hard work is that the presentation is almost finished but not quite.

Now compare it to:

  • She had been working very hard and the presentation was finally done.

So the action is the same, hard work but this time the action is complete. The work is finished right and the result of that completed work is that the presentation is done.

Okay, now it’s your turn to put all of this into practice. We’ve got to get comfortable choosing between these tenses right and deciding which is the right one to use.

So you’re going to choose between the past continuous and the past perfect continuous. I’m going to give you a sentence. You’ll see a verb that you need to use in brackets but you’ll need to put it in the right tense, all right?

Here’s a tip. Make sure you’re looking out for those time references and those adverbs. They’re going to help you to choose the right tense. I think they’re a good clue.

Write down your answers on a piece of paper or in the comments. You can check your answers by having a look at the description below. I’ve left the correct answers there.

So a huge shout out to all of you who made it through this lesson. I know that it’s really hard to stay focused with grammar. Hopefully, you’re feeling confident about using these tenses.

And the good news is that there’s some more practice coming over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to be sharing a quiz and some speaking practice that will help you to review these tenses and help you to use them in context and get comfortable with them.

And if you’re ready to keep practising with me, check out this video here or this one and of course, hit subscribe. Make sure you subscribe to the channel, turn on notifications and share my lesson with anyone that you think needs a little extra help with their English grammar.

That’s it from me today. I will see you in the next lesson.

Bye for now!

Links mentioned in the video

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