El Imperfecto progresivo vs El Indefinido progresivo (was +ing)

In Spanish there are two forms that can be used where in English you would use the past progressive tense "was/were +ing".

Which form you need depends on the timeframe of the ongoing action in the past. 

1. El Imperfecto progresivo

Estar [in El Pretérito Imperfecto] + gerund [-ando/-iendo]

For example:

Susana estaba escribiendo una carta.
Susana was writing a letter.

Los niños estaban jugando en el jardín.
The children were playing in the garden.

-¿Qué estábais haciendo? -Estábamos viendo la tele.
-What were you doing? -We were watching telly.

Ella estaba lavándose el pelo cuando él llegó.
She was washing her hair when he arrived.

We use the Imperfecto progresivo in these cases:

  • When the ongoing action is simply describing "what was happening" without any emphasis or implication about start or end time (see the first three examples above).
  • When it is combined with another action that interrupts the ongoing action at that time. The interrupting action is generally in the simple past (see the last example where the ongoing action "She was washing her hair" was interrupted by another sudden action "he arrived".

2. El Indefinido progresivo 

Estar [in El Pretérito Indefinido + gerund [-ando/-iendo]

For example:

Ayer estuvimos bailando toda la noche.
Yesterday we were dancing all night.

¿Qué estuvisteis haciendo de 6 a 7 de la tarde?
What were you doing from 6 till 7 pm?

El sábado pasado estuve corrigiendo exámenes.
Last Saturday I was marking exams.

We use the Indefinido progresivo in this case:

  • When the ongoing past action is inside a completed timeframe in the past. See how all examples above contain a time phrase: "toda la noche", "de 6 a 7 de la tarde", "el sábado pasado".

Bear in mind that the Imperfecto progresivo, when it is used to  describe a scene purely in the past, can very often be interchangeable with the Imperfecto. For example:

  • Estaba lloviendo y la gente estaba corriendo para protegerse de la lluvia. (Imperfecto progresivo)
  • Llovía y la gente corría para protegerse de la lluvia. (Imperfecto)

(It was raining and people were running for cover from the rain.)

Careful:

Sometimes the timeframe isn't specific about having a beginning and an end so you may find this type of sentences using El Indefinido Progresivo [estuve+gerund]

Estuvimos almorzando hasta que acabamos con toda la comida y luego nos fuimos al cine.
We were having lunch until we finished all the food and then we went to the cinema.

We don't know when the "eating" started, but the end is expressed with "hasta que nos acabamos toda la comida". This may sound as if that is an interrupting action and may lead you to wrongly think you need to use El Imperfecto Progresivo [estaba+gerund].

See also Using El Preterito Imperfecto to describe a situation in the past.

Remember that some gerunds are irregular. See:

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

¿Qué estuvisteis haciendo de 6 a 7 de la tarde?
What were you doing from 6 till 7 pm?


-¿Qué estábais haciendo? -Estábamos viendo la tele.
-What were you doing? -We were watching telly.


Estuvimos almorzando hasta que acabamos con toda la comida y luego nos fuimos al cine.
We were having lunch until we finished all the food and then we went to the cinema.


Susana estaba escribiendo una carta.
Susana was writing a letter.


El sábado pasado estuve corrigiendo exámenes.
Last Saturday I was marking exams.


Los niños estaban jugando en el jardín.
The children were playing in the garden.


Ayer estuvimos bailando toda la noche.
Yesterday we were dancing all night.


Ella estaba lavándose el pelo cuando él llegó.
She was washing her hair when he arrived.


Q&A

Korbel

Kwiziq community member

10 October 2018

2 replies

a señora ________ esperando al médico durante 40 minutos. The lady was waiting for the doctor for 40 minutes.

Why was the English translation of the Spanish question misleading?.. It should have been written as.... The lady waited for the doctor for 40 minutes...

Inma

Kwiziq language super star

11 October 2018

11/10/18

Hola Korbel,

The translation in English is using the progressive tense "was waiting", therefore the tense in Spanish that is needed is also the progressive tense "estuvo esperando". 

With your suggestion "The lady waited for the doctor for 40 minutes." we wouldn't be showing the progression, which is what this lesson is about.

I hope this clarifies it.

Gracias y saludos

Inma

Korbel

Kwiziq community member

18 November 2018

18/11/18

Thank you.

Nelson

Kwiziq community member

9 July 2018

2 replies

Why is this being marked incorrectly?

Te ________ hasta que me aburrí y me fui.I was waiting for you until I got bored and left.

Twice now I have entered 'estaba' but the correct answer is shown to be 'estuve'. I thought that when an action is either interrupted or where there is no specific beginning or end, it's the imperfect. Can you please clarify? Thank you.

Inma

Kwiziq language super star

10 July 2018

10/07/18

Hi Nelson

This sentence needs the Indefinido Progresivo (estuve esperando) because this: "hasta que me aburrí" (until I got bored) is marking the end of that action (estar esperando). However we can see that it is a bit ambiguous and one could take it as another action interrupting the first one.

We will add an extra note to this lesson to reflect those cases.

Saludos

Inma

Nelson

Kwiziq community member

10 July 2018

10/07/18

Mil gracias por la respuesta
I'll be right with you...