Using Spanish Gerunds Without Auxiliary Verbs

Sometimes they can stand alone

woman crying
Lloré escuchando tu voz. (I cried while listening to your voice.).

MarLeah Cole / Creative Commons.

Although the Spanish verbal present participle or gerund—that is, the form of the verb that ends in -ando or -iendo—is most commonly used with estar and a few other verbs to form what are known as the progressive verb forms, it can also be used by itself (without an auxiliary verb) to indicate that something is being done or occurring while something else is occurring.

In most such cases, the present participle can still be translated using the English "-ing" form of the verb.

To Mean ‘While + Verb + -ing’

There are several ways in which sentences using the gerund can be translated or thought of in English. One common way is for it to be used as the equivalent of the English "while" followed by an "-ing" verbs. Here are some examples:

  • Lloré escuchando tu voz. (I cried while listening to your voice.)
  • Ganaron cinco partidos, perdiendo trece. (They won five matches while losing 13.)
  • ¿Soy la única en este planeta que se durmió viendo "El silencio de los inocentes"? (Am I the only person on this planet who fell asleep while watching "The Silence of the Lambs"?)
  • Los participantes comenzaron el estudio comiendo una dieta americana. (The participants began the study while eating an American diet.)

Note that in most of the above English translations, the word "while" can be omitted with little or no change in meaning.

To Function as an Adverb

In some cases (including some of the above examples, depending on how they're interpreted), the gerund is used much like an adverb to describe how the action of the main verb is carried out:

  • Mi amiga salió corriendo. (My friend left running.)
  • Finalmente se fue sonriendo. (Finally he went away laughing.)
  • Sólo compraron Nescafé, ignorando el resto de las marcas. (They only bought Nescafé, ignoring the other brands.)

When the gerund is used to describe how something is done, it can often be translated using the English preposition "by":

  • Usted puede darles el mejor comienzo a sus bebés teniendo un buen cuidado de usted. (You can give your babies the best beginning by taking good care of yourself.)
  • Podemos ahorrar tiempo usando la bicicleta. (We can save time by using the bicycle.)
  • Estudiando mucho, tendremos éxito. (By studying hard, we will be successful.)

Often, in the English translation, the word "by" can be omitted with little or no change in meaning, as in the second example above.

To Indicate Purpose

When the gerund is used to indicate the purpose of the verb it follows, it is often the equivalent of "in order + infinitive" or even just an infinitive.

  • Me escribió quejándose del comportamiento de mi prima. (He wrote to me to complain about the behavior of my cousin.)
  • Ganaron obteniendo el derecho de participar en el juego final. (They won in order to get the right to compete in the final game.)
  • Salimos apagando todas las luces. (We are leaving to turn off all the lights.)

In Image Captions

It is common practice for image captions in print and online publications to use a gerund immediately following a noun as part of the picture description. For example, a picture of children in a playground might say "niños jugando" for "children playing." The same phrase sometimes appears on road signs in residential neighborhoods.

Such use of gerunds, however, is an exception to the rule that they cannot function adjectives as is common in English. In standard Spanish, for example, a sentence such as as "Veo a los niños que juegan" (I see the children who are playing) is used rather than "Veo a los niños jugando."

In modern colloquial Spanish, however, the wording of the second sentence is growing more common, possibly because of the use of such a construction in publications translated from English. Such wording still should be avoided in formal writing.

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish gerunds are frequently used to indicate how the action of another verb is being performed.
  • Gerunds can also be used to indicate the purpose of the action of another verb's action.
  • Traditionally, gerunds do not function as adjectives except when describing nouns in image captions.