When you learn Spanish, verbs, verbs tenses, and above all their conjugations can be a bit of a nightmare right?
Well, here's some good news: the Spanish continuous tense is not a tense in the technical sense. And it's surprisingly simple to conjugate, as you'll soon see.
In fact, you can use the Spanish continuous (or progressive) in the past or present tense. This verb form is used to talk about something that is (or was) currently happening.
Although it's not the first form you need to learn to understand and speak Spanish like a native speaker, mastering the continuous can help you get further on your Spanish-speaking journey!
As you'll see, there are a few things about the continuous that can trip you up if you're a native English speaker. Even though English has a similar structure (the “ing” verb form), they're not exactly equivalent.
But by the end of this post, you'll know how to use the Spanish continuous like a native speaker.
By the way, if you're getting started in Spanish and want to go from beginner to intermediate fast, I recommend Spanish Uncovered. It's my story-based course that will get you to conversational fluency fast, without getting bogged down in grammar.
The Spanish Gerundio
There are actually two separate verbs to conjugate when you use the progressive in Spanish: estar and the verb that describes what is happening. The basic form of the continuous is estar (more on this next) + the gerundio.
Before we get into how estar makes the difference between the present, past (and other!) tenses of continuous verbs, let's take a look at how to conjugate the gerundio in Spanish.
A quick note: The English word “gerund” is a cognate of the Spanish gerundio, but the parts of speech are not exactly the same. If you're well versed in English parts of speech, you'll recognise that the Spanish continuous tense is formed with what we call “present participles” in English.
If you're not familiar with the present participle in English, don't worry! Most people don't know the names of all the various verb forms in their native language, partly because they can use them correctly just by feel.
With second (and third, fourth, etc.) languages, there is a little more grammar revision to get to that point. But it doesn't have to be stressful. As a general rule, you can think of the Spanish gerundio as the equivalent of English verbs ending in –ing.
Conjugating the gerundio in Spanish is actually quite simple because each verb has only one. There's no need to change the conjugation based on the subject of the sentence!
All you do is remove the ar/er/ir verb ending and replace it with the following:
It really is that simple! Here are a few examples:
Spanish Continuous Tense Irregular Verbs
When compared with other verb forms, there are fewer irregular verbs than you may be expecting.
In fact, there are only three groups of irregular gerundios: –er/—ir verbs where the stem ends in a vowel (including the verb “ir”), –er/–ir verbs ending in ll or ñ, and –ir verbs with stem changes.
Let's take a look at each one of these cases.
Verbs with Stems Ending in a Vowel
For –er and –ir verbs whose stems end in a vowel (leer (to read) for example), the –iendo ending changes to –yendo instead.
The easiest way to remember this irregularity is to think about maintaining the original pronunciation of each verb.
Caminar(to walk) does not change significantly when it becomes caminando, for example. And no special spelling is necessary to keep the pronunciation.
With verbs like leer(to read) and oír (to hear), however, a small modification of the spelling is all you need to keep the pronunciation the same.
In fact, these irregular conjugations are almost impossible to notice when speaking. It's only when writing out the gerundio that you will need to know these irregularities:
Verbs With Stems In Ll Or Ñ
Just as –er and –ir verbs whose stems end in a vowel necessitate a change to –yendo to keep pronunciation consistent, –er and –ir verbs whose stems end in ll or ñ end in –endo in the gerundio.
Again, a great way to remember this pattern is to consider the pronunciation and spelling.
- engullir (to devour)
- tañer (to play an instrument)
- bullir (to boil)
Stem Changing –ir Verbs
The final group of irregular gerundios are –ir verbs with stem changes. In these cases, the stem change follows the same pattern as in the third person preterite + the –ando/–iendo ending. The only exception is dormir (to sleep)as you will see below:
Now that you know how to form the gerundio, you are ready to move on to the many forms of the continuous tense in Spanish!
How To Form the Spanish Present Continuous Tense
All tenses of the Spanish progressive use a combination of estar and the gerundio. Let's start by looking at the present progressive first.
When using the continuous tense to talk about something that is currently taking place, you start with the present tense of estar:
- Estoy trabajando ahora mismo. (I am working right now.)
- La abuelita está durmiendo. (Grandmother is sleeping.)
The present progressive can also be used to describe an action that is unusual in its occurrence:
- Estudia las matemáticas pero este semestre está tomando dos cursos de literatura (He is studying mathematics, but he is taking two literature classes this semester.)
Be careful not to use the continuous tense simply because you would use an –ing verb in English! Many situations in which –ing verbs make sense in English do not translate to gerundios in Spanish.
For example:In English, we say, “Where are you going?” and “He is wearing a new watch.” In Spanish, it is more appropriate to use the simple present tense: ¿Adónde vas?and Él lleva un reloj nuevo.
In other words, think of the continuous tense as a way of describing an ongoing action. When in doubt, ask yourself if the simple present tense will work instead.
As a general rule, we use –ing verbs much more in English than Spanish native speakers use the progressive.
In fact, overusing the continuous tense in Spanish is often a sign of a new Spanish learner. Or a Spanish speaker with lots of exposure to English.
The Continuous Past Tense
The Spanish past continuous tense (also called the “imperfect progressive”) is almost always used to describe an action that was interrupted. Or what was already happening when something else took place.
If you consider the different forms of the past tense in Spanish, it should make sense.
Let's go over the basics of the past tense in Spanish. You can find a more in-depth explanation with more examples here if you need a more thorough explanation.
The preterite and imperfect past tenses are called the “simple past tenses.”
If you want to describe an ongoing situation or activity in the past, you use the imperfect:
- De niño, comía cada día a la misma hora. (As a child, I ate at the same time every day.)
If you want to talk about something that happened once, you use the preterite:
- Corrieron un maratón el verano pasado. (They ran a marathon this past summer.)
The past continuous is for combining the two—I was doing this when this happened. The past continuous is formed with the imperfect form of estar and the same gerundios we used earlier.
- Estábamos jugando cuando empezó a llover.(We were playing when it started to rain.)
- Reina estaba comiendo cuando llamaste.(Reina was eating when you called.)
As with the present tense, the past continuous can be used to describe an action that did not happen regularly.
You'll notice in the previous example that two past tenses are used: the past continuous to describe the continuous action and the preterite to describe a single action.
Final Notes About Continuous Tense Specifics
When you're using the continuous Spanish form, either in the present or past tense, you can either attach pronouns to the end of the gerundio or before estar:
- Me estaba lavando la cara cuando mi compañero de cuarto volvió.
- Estaba lavándome la cara cuando mi compañero de cuarto volvió.
- (I was washing my face when my roommate returned.)
Using the continuous to talk about a future action is not an acceptable use of the Spanish continuous. And is another common error to avoid.
In English, it is not uncommon to say something such as, “I am going shopping with my sister tomorrow” to refer to what happens in the future. In Spanish, “voy” or “voy a ir” are the acceptable verb conjugations to use instead.
Spanish Continuous Tense: Immerse Yourself
As you can see from the examples above, there are quite a few different uses of the continuous form in Spanish, often depending on exactly what events you want to describe.
If you get this tense right, then you'll sound less like a native English speaker trying to speak Spanish. And more like a native Spanish speaker.
So how do you start using it the right way?
By exposing yourself to Spanish as often as you can with reading/listening to authentic Spanish daily. That way, you'll become more comfortable with when to use the continuous form and how to do so confidently!