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The use of the past progressive in English

Mandarin and English are similar in some ways. It may sometimes be helpful to become aware of these similarities in learning English. Both Mandarin and English have a progressive grammatical aspect. This is expressed with “-ing” in English and with “zai” and “zhe” in Mandarin. For example, one could translate the sentence
“I’m speaking.” with “wo zai shuo.” in Mandarin. Both languages express the fact that the action of speaking is ongoing through a grammatical marker.
Nevertheless, there are some obvious differences between the languages as well. For instance, in English one indicates the tense of the action on the first verb within the verb phrase. In the above example, the fact that the sentence is true at the present time is expressed by the fact that the first verb, “be”, is inflected into the simple present tense. There is no grammatical tense in Mandarin, so there is no explicit indication of the fact that the action is ongoing at the present time.
To use the past progressive in English, one must inflect the first verb into a past tense form of “be” – either “was” or “were” depending on the subject. ESL students often have no trouble using the correct form of the past progressive. However, they have problems using this verb tense in their writing and speaking. There are few things that students of English should know with respect to its use.
First of all, as you probably know, it is used for action which occurred in the past.
Secondly, as you also probably know, it’s used for ongoing action – thus, the use of the progressive “-ing” marker. Thirdly, and this is the fact that many students of English do not know, a typical use of this form is to indicate background action at a specific point in time. This is important. It is normally used to give background information for another more important event which is in the foreground.
Let’s look at example # 1:

e.g. 1 – “While I was driving to work, I got into an accident.”

In example # 1, “was driving” is used to give the background to the more important event of getting into an accident. The event of driving to work is only really relevant to help explain to the reader/listener the situation which the person was in when he/she got into an accident.
Let’s look at an incorrect use of the past progressive, if for example, somebody were to say/write, “It was raining hard last night.”, an English speaker would probably think “So what?” or “Then what happened?” because such a sentence would usually be used to explain the background to an event. Another problem with the use of the past progressive in the above sentence is the length of time for the action. “Last night” would last for many hours. The past progressive is typically used to indicate the background for a shorter period of time than this. If one wanted to use the above example, one would need to construct a longer stretch of discourse to give the background to a more significant event.
For instance, one might give the background to an accident in this manner:
“I was driving home last night and it was raining really hard. I couldn’t see clearly because of the rain. Suddenly, a pedestrian ran in front of my car and unfortunately I hit him because I didn’t see him.” As this longer example shows, the past progressive is used to give the background to the much more significant event of when the speaker hit the pedestrian. In addition, it also illustrates the fact that in order to understand the use of the past progressive, one must sometimes understand the function of various verb phrases within the longer stretch of discourse.
Now it’s your turn. Read the following stretch of discourse and edit the verbs as required. Some of the verbs are used correctly, but you may need to change some of the verbs to either past progressive or the simple past (the edited answer is written upside-down at the bottom).

“My family came back from Florida in my dad’s new car and we drove through Kentucky. The roads in Kentucky were a bit icy. My dad had reached the top of a hill, when he accelerated too much into a turn. The car was spinning out of control and hit the guard rails of the bridge. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. However, the car was very badly damaged.”

“came” should be “was coming”; “drove” should be “were driving”; and “was spinning” should be “spun”.

Categories: Oral English
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