Past Progressive in Spanish: What It Is, How and When to Use It and More
The past progressive refers to actions that were taking place at some point in the past.
For example, in English, you’d say something like “The little girl was talking to her friend on the phone yesterday.”
Spanish has a similar grammatical concept.
So what is the Spanish past progressive, how do you form it and when do you use it?
Read on to harness the power of the past progressive in Spanish!
- 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
- And One More Thing…
The Past Progressive Pattern
Let’s look at a few examples of the past progressive in English and translate them into Spanish.
What were you doing? → ¿Qué estabas haciendo?
I was telling her that… → Estaba diciéndole que…
She was looking at Sam. → Ella estaba mirando a Sam.
She was crying. → Ella estaba llorando.
Do you notice the pattern in the Spanish translations?
You might be able to spot it even if you’re new to learning Spanish and don’t recognize the verb endings yet.
It may look complicated at first, but the Spanish past progressive is as easy as its English counterpart. The following sections will teach you how to form it, step by step.
How to Form the Spanish Past Progressive Tense
1. Imperfect tense of estar
If you’re learning the past progressive tense, you’re probably already familiar with the Spanish present progressive. If not, I recommend you review the present progressive in Spanish before you proceed.
As you know, when forming the Spanish present progressive tense, you have to take the present tense of the verb estar (to be).
To form the past progressive, you need to conjugate the imperfect tense of the same verb according to its corresponding Spanish pronoun:
|Imperfect Tense Conjugations of "Estar"
|tú (you, informal)
usted (you, formal)
nosotras (we, feminine)
(you, masculine plural in European Spanish)
vosotras (you, feminine plural in European Spanish)
ellas (they, feminine)
ustedes (you, plural)
The verb estar is regular in the imperfect tense, so this should not be difficult to learn.
Next, we need the Spanish gerundio (gerund).
Depending on the ending of the infinitive, regular verbs can fall into one of two groups: those that end in -ar and those that end in -er or -ir.
Infinitives ending in -ar
Remove -ar and add -ando:
|cantar (to sing)
|tocar (to touch)
|llamar (to call)
|estudiar (to learn)
Infinitives ending in -er and -ir
Remove -er or -ir and add -iendo:
|-er and -ir Verbs
|comer (to eat)
|perder (to lose)
|vivir (to live)
|resistir (to resist)
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:
|Spanish Irregular Verb
|leer (to read)
|caer (to fall)
|ir (to go)
|dormir (to sleep)
|decir (to say)
|mentir (to lie)
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 to do is put them together and make sentences.
Have a look at some examples:
|Spanish Past Progressive in Sentences
|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 at 2 p.m.
Easy! As you can see, the English and the Spanish past progressive tenses are quite similar.
To better understand this tense, you can hear native speakers use it in authentic Spanish videos with interactive subtitles on the FluentU language learning program.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
As you watch and listen to these tenses in action, you’ll become more accustomed to how the Spanish past progressive should sound. You can also hear more about it in this podcast from News in Slow Spanish.
But when are you supposed to use this tense in Spanish?
When to Use the Spanish Past Progressive Tense
To describe something that was happening
Use the Spanish past progressive tense when you want to talk about what was happening in the past.
Take a look at the following examples and pay attention to the similarities between both languages:
|Examples of Past Progressive for Describing Ongoing Past Actions
|María estaba comiendo manzanas.
|María was eating apples.
|Yo estaba estudiando polaco.
|I was studying Polish.
|Mamá estaba durmiendo.
|Mum was sleeping.
|It was raining.
If you’re thinking that these sentences sound a little weird, as if something were missing from them, I agree with you.
It’s 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 isn’t quite right.
To place an action in time
The weirdness I mentioned above can be easily solved if you add a time expression to the sentences.
Time expressions vary depending on the day, year or even specific times. It would be impossible to add all of them here, so let me give you some examples instead:
|Time Expressions in Spanish
| el lunes
| el lunes pasado
el martes pasado
el miércoles pasado
|the day before yesterday
| la semana pasada
el mes pasado
el año pasado
| hace ... segundos
hace ... minutos
hace ... horas
hace ... días
hace ... semanas
|... seconds ago
... minutes ago
... hours ago
... days ago
... weeks ago
| por la mañana
por la tarde
por la noche
|in the morning
in the afternoon
in the evening
|a las + hora
|at + time
You can even mix them together:
|Combined Time Expressions in Spanish
|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.
If we add some of these time expressions to our examples above, we get:
|Time Expressions in Action
|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.
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 interrupted by another action.
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:
|Past Progressive Interrupted by Another Action
|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 up the Spanish imperfect and the past progressive. While it’s true that they’re similar (the past progressive uses the imperfect tense of estar) and often have identical translations in English, there’s a slight difference between them.
Learning how and when to use the appropriate one of the two will definitely help you improve your Spanish conversation and writing skills.
Here’s 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 an 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 2 p.m., I was eating at grandma’s house.)
Estaba estudiando inglés porque mañana tengo un examen. (I was studying English because I have an exam tomorrow.)
With this post, you should be ready to rock your Spanish to the next level. Remember that the past progressive is easy and very useful, so try to use it as much as you can when talking or writing in Spanish. Don’t forget to add estar to your sentences, or else they will sound really weird!
And as always, happy learning!
And One More Thing…
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