How and When to Use the Past Progressive in Spanish
Today, we will be learning the Spanish past progressive.
What is the past progressive?
When do you use it?
Read on, dear readers, to harness the power of the Spanish past progressive!
- The Past Progressive Pattern
- How to Form the Spanish Past Progressive Tense
- When to Use the Spanish Past Progressive Tense
- The Difference Between the Imperfect and the Past Progressive
The Past Progressive Pattern
If you read the opening conversation again, you will notice there are five bold fragments in it. All of them are written in the past progressive tense.
After all, that is the tense we use in English in order to refer to actions that were taking place at some point in the past.
Now let’s translate the fragments into Spanish:
What were you doing… → ¿Qué estabas haciendo…?
I was having dinner → Estaba cenando
I was telling her → Le estaba diciendo
She was looking at Sam → Estaba mirando a Sam
She was crying → Estaba llorando
Do you notice the pattern in the Spanish translations?
You might be able to spot it even if you are a beginning Spanish learner and do not recognize the verb endings yet.
It may look complicated at first, but the Spanish past progressive is as friendly and easy as the English past progressive, and this post will prove it to you.
The past progressive tense is one of those Spanish tenses that takes no time to learn but is super useful. The following sections will teach you how to form it, step by step.
Ready? Let’s learn!
How to Form the Spanish Past Progressive Tense
1. Imperfect tense of estar
If you are learning the past progressive tense, I assume you have already studied the present form of the tense. If you have not, I recommend you start from the beginning by studying the Spanish present progressive.
When forming the present progressive tense, the first thing we needed was the present tense of the verb estar.
To form the past progressive, what we need is the imperfect tense of the same verb:
The verb estar is regular in the imperfect tense, so this should not be difficult to learn.
Next, we need a present participle, also known as the Spanish gerundio.
Depending on the ending of the infinitive, regular verbs can fall into one of two groups:
Infinitives ending in -ar
Remove -ar and add -ando:
cantar (to sing) → cantando (singing)
tocar (to touch) → tocando (touching)
llamar (to call) → llamando (calling)
estudiar (to learn) → estudiando (learning)
Infinitives ending in -er and -ir
Remove -er or -ir and add -iendo:
comer (to eat) → comiendo (eating)
perder (to lose) → perdiendo (losing)
vivir (to live) → viviendo (living)
resistir (to resist) → resistiendo (resisting)
As for irregular verbs, it would be outside the scope of this post to include all the possible irregularities and infinitives. You can find a long list of irregular gerundios at Learn a Language.
Here are just a few of the most common irregulars:
leer (to read) → leyendo (reading)
caer (to fall) → cayendo (falling)
ir (to go) → yendo (going)
dormir (to sleep) → durmiendo (sleeping)
decir (to say) → diciendo (saying)
mentir (to lie) → mintiendo (lying)
3. The past progressive: estar + gerundio
Now that we know how to get the different components of the past progressive, the only thing we have left to do is put them together and make sentences.
In order to form the Spanish past progressive, you are going to need the imperfect tense of estar (see point one of this section) and the gerundio of the main verb (see point two of this section).
Once we have those two things together we can start having fun! Have a look at some examples:
Mi hermana estaba cocinando mientras yo estaba planchando. (My sister was cooking while I was ironing.)
El perro estaba ladrando cuando llegué. (The dog was barking when I arrived.)
Recuerdo que el teléfono estaba sonando. (I remember the phone was ringing.)
Ayer a las dos estábamos almorzando. (We were having lunch yesterday a two p.m.)
Easy! As you can see, the similarities between the English and the Spanish past progressive tenses are striking.
To better understand this tense, you can hear native speakers use it in authentic Spanish videos with interactive subtitles on the FluentU program. As you watch and listen to these tenses in action, you will become more accustomed to how the Spanish past progressive should sound. You can also listen hear more about it in this podcast from News in Slow Spanish.
But when are we supposed to use this tense in Spanish?
When to Use the Spanish Past Progressive Tense
To describe something that was happening
I have already mentioned a couple of times in this post that the Spanish progressive tense is one of the easiest tenses in Spanish. It is very easy to form, and it is even easier to use because of its similarities with English.
Use the Spanish past progressive tense when you want to talk about what was happening in the past.
Notice I said “what was happening,” meaning you use this tense for the same purpose you use it in English: talking about ongoing past actions.
Have a look at the following examples and pay attention to the similarities between both languages:
María estaba comiendo manzanas. (María was eating apples.)
Yo estaba estudiando polaco. (I was studying Polish.)
Mamá estaba durmiendo. (Mum was sleeping.)
Estaba lloviendo. (It was raining.) Note: Do not miss the cool song at the end of the page we’ve linked you to here. Priceless and educational!
If you are thinking that these sentences sound a little weird, as if something were missing from them, I confess I agree with you.
It is common to find these kinds of examples when learning the past progressive, but for a Spanish native speaker (and even for speakers of English) something does not look right.
To place an action in time
This weirdness can easily be solved if we add a time expression to the sentences.
Time expressions vary from days or years to even specific times. It would be impossible to add all of them here, but let me give you some examples:
- el lunes, el martes, el miércoles… (on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday…)
- el lunes/martes/miércoles… pasado (last Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday…)
- ayer (yesterday)
- anteayer (the day before yesterday)
- la semana/el mes/el año… pasado (last week/month/year…)
- hace + 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… + segundos/minutos/horas/días/semanas… (1, 2, 3, 4, 5… + seconds/minutes/hours/days/weeks… + ago)
- por la mañana/tarde/noche (in the morning/afternoon/evening)
- a las + hora (at + time)
You can even mix them together:
ayer a las cinco de la tarde (yesterday at five p.m.)
anteayer por la mañana (the day before yesterday in the morning)
el jueves a las ocho (on Thursday at eight a.m.)
If we add some of these time expressions to our examples above, we get:
María estaba comiendo manzanas ayer por la tarde. (María was eating apples yesterday afternoon.)
Yo estaba estudiando polaco hace dos horas. (I was studying Polish two hours ago.)
Mamá estaba durmiendo por la mañana. (Mum was sleeping in the morning.)
Estaba lloviendo a las 7:50. (It was raining at 7:50 a.m.)
Don’t you think they sound much better now? I certainly do!
To speak of an action that was interrupted
Lastly, you will find the past progressive in sentences describing actions that were interrupted by another action. This is very similar to when we had ongoing actions, but this time we have a second action interrupting the main one.
This also happens in English, but while English uses the past progressive and the past simple, Spanish uses the past progressive and the preterite tense. The interrupting action is highlighted in bold in the examples below:
Me estaba duchando cuando llamaste. (I was taking a shower when you called.)
Juan estaba cantando cuando lo vi. (Juan was singing when I saw him.)
Cuando llegamos estaba lloviendo. (When we arrived, it was raining.)
Estaban durmiendo cuando ocurrió. (They were sleeping when it happened.)
The Difference Between the Imperfect and the Past Progressive
A lot of people mix the Spanish imperfect and the past progressive. It is true that they are similar (the past progressive uses the imperfect tense of estar), and sometimes they are even translated identically in English.
However, there is a slight difference between them, and learning how and when to use the appropriate one of the two will definitely help you improve your Spanish conversation and writing skills.
Here is a quick and easy guide to deciding which tense you should use:
1. Use the imperfect tense for habits and actions that happened over an extended period of time, with or without pause:
Comía en casa de abuela cada domingo. (I used to eat at grandma’s house each Sunday.)
Estudiaba inglés porque quería ser profesor. (I would study/used to study English because I wanted to be a professor.)
2. Use the past progressive for ongoing action in specific situations that took place at a particular moment in time:
Estaba comiendo en casa de abuela ayer a las dos de la tarde. (Yesterday at two p.m. I was eating at grandma’s house.)
Estaba estudiando inglés antes porque mañana tengo un examen. (I was studying English before because I have an exam tomorrow.)
With this post, you should be ready to rock your Spanish to the next level. Remember the past progressive is easy and very useful, so try to use it as much as you can when talking or writing in Spanish. Do not forget to add estar to your sentences, or else they will sound really weird!
And as always, happy learning!