Using the Spanish Present Progressive Tense

Verb form emphasizes ongoing nature of action

Writing a menu
Está escribiendo la carta. (He is writing the menu.).

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The present progressive tense of Spanish is formed with the simple present tense of estar followed by a present participle, also known as a gerund.

Differences Between Progressive and Simple Tenses

Thus, the present progressive forms of comer are:

  • Estoy comiendo. I am eating.
  • Estás comiendo. You are eating.
  • Está comiendo. You/he/she are/is eating.
  • Estamos comiendo. We are eating.
  • Estáis comiendo. You are eating.
  • Están comiendo. You/they are eating.

Something you may notice right away is that the simple present tense can also be translated the same way. Thus "comemos" can also mean "We are eating." So what's the difference?

The main difference is that, like the other progressive verb forms, the present progressive (also known as the present continuous) tense emphasizes the process, or that something is in progress, more than the simple present does. The difference can be a subtle one, and there isn't always a big difference in meaning between the simple present and the present progressive.

Again, the matter is one of emphasis. You may ask a friend, "¿En que piensas?" or "¿En que estás pensando?" and they both would mean "What are you thinking about?" But the latter places more emphasis on the thinking process. In some contexts (but not all), the connotation of the Spanish progressive might be conveyed in a sentence such as "What are you thinking?" where the English verbal emphasis gives a slight change of meaning.

How the Present Progressive Is Used

Here are some examples of sentences where the in-progress nature of the verb's action can be seen:

  • Estoy escribiendo el plan de negocios para mi empresa. (I am writing the business plan for my enterprise.)
  • Estamos estudiando la posibilidad de hacerla bianualmente. (We are studying the possibility of doing it biannually.)
  • ¿Le están saliendo sus primeros dientitos? (Are his first baby teeth growing out?)
  • Me estoy rompiendo en pedazos. (I'm falling apart. Literally, I'm breaking in pieces.)
  • Los libros electrónicos están ganando popularidad. (Electronic books are gaining popularity.)

The present progressive can suggest that something is happening right now, and sometimes it can indicate that the action is something unexpected or likely to be of short duration:

  • ¿Qué es esto que estoy sintiendo? (What's this I'm feeling now?)
  • No me molestes. Estoy estudiando. (Don't bother me. I'm studying.)
  • ¿Ésto es lo que estás diciendo? (This is what you're telling me?)
  • Puedo ver que estás sufriendo. (I can see you're suffering.)

And sometimes, the present progressive can be used for almost the opposite, to indicate that something is constantly happening over and over, even though it may not be happening at the moment:

  • Sabemos que estamos comiendo maíz transgénico. (We know we are constantly eating genetically engineered corn.)
  • Las unidades se están vendiendo ilegalmente en los Estados Unidos. (The units keep on being sold illegally in the United States.)
  • Los barcos de aluminio satisfarían bien si usted está pescando mucho en los ríos. (The aluminum boats would be quite suitable if you are fishing all the time in rivers.)

Keep in mind that while many of the sample sentences here are translated using the present progressive in English, you shouldn't habitually translate that English form to Spanish that way. Spanish students frequently overuse the progressive, partly because it is used in English in ways that it isn't in Spanish. For example, the English sentence "We are leaving tomorrow," would be nonsensical if translated using the Spanish present progressive, as "Estamos saliendo" would typically be understood to mean "We are leaving now" or "We are in the process of leaving."

Other Progressive Tenses

Progressive tenses can also be formed by using the other tenses of estar. Although some of the tenses are seldom used, they are used much like their English counterparts. As with the present tense, the use of a progressive rather than simple tense puts an emphasis on the continuing nature of the action.

An example is the preterite progressive, which indicates that an action continued over a period of time but came to a definite end. This can be seen in this sentence: La compañia estuvo comprando derechos de agua. (The company was buying water rights.)

The same sentence could be reworded into the imperfect progressive (La compañia estaba comprando derechos de agua) without a change in translation, but its meaning would change slightly. In the imperfect, the sentence doesn't clearly indicate that the purchasing came to an end.

Progressive tenses can even be formed using the perfect tenses of estar. For example, the future perfect progressive is used in this sentence: Habré estado viajando aproximadamente 24 horas. (I will have been traveling about 24 hours.)

Key Takeaways

  • The progressive tenses are formed by combining a form of estar with the present participle or gerund.
  • The progressive tenses emphasize the continuing nature of the action.
  • English speakers should be careful not to overuse the progressive tenses in Spanish, which uses them less frequently than English does.