I wanted to write about the encounter of this man and woman talking about stuff. An issue I keep running into is the usage of imperfect. Just how indefinite do the actions have to be? Do I have to mention the exact time frame to use preterite?

I mean, I know these people talked for maybe 10 minutes after I got there and were probably talking for a bit before I arrived. It was a public setting, therefore there would be no way that this was an on and off sort of event. Kind of like being in a waiting room in a DMV or airport. That's where I was. What if I knew exactly how long but didn't want to mention it? Anyway, the exact sentence would be:

I went to the airport this afternoon. This woman and this man were talking about stuff. They were talking about how much they love cheese. I love cheese.

Nothing happened after. It was just observations on what they were talking about. Should I use estaban hablando or estuvieron hablando? Or hablaban or hablaron?

My guess I could use either depending on how I frame it.

For example, I could also say:

I went to the airport thus afternoon. This woman and man spoke about stuff. They spoke about cheese. I love cheese.

This would probably be more completed and therefore preterite. The former uses -ing so it probably is imperfect.

I feel like I could even describe this using Haber.

I went to the airport this afternoon. This man and woman had spoken about stuff. They had spoken about cheese. I love cheese.

  • 1
    Hint: "estuvieron hablando un rato y luego se despidieron", but "estaban hablando cuando yo llegué". Both could work, but more context is necessary. Did something happen when they were talking or are you describing a finished action?
    – Yay
    Apr 2, 2016 at 9:48
  • It was more of an observation of what they were talking about and this would start off the observation with this sentence. So imperfect is only used when there is an interruption ? (Besides the other uses of describing people, places, time, "used to", etc). Apr 2, 2016 at 12:51
  • It's more about completed actions than interrupted actions. You say "ayer a las siete estaba viendo la tele" because at that moment (seven o' clock) the action wasn't finished, even though no one interrupted you. Compare "Hace tres años estaba viviendo en Japón" with "Durante tres años estuve viviendo en Japón". In your case, I have the feeling "estaban hablando" is better because in the moment you're describing they were still speaking, but again, it's hard to tell.
    – Yay
    Apr 2, 2016 at 13:19
  • The Spanish imperfect is analogous to the English past progressive. You used a past progressive when you gave us the English sentence "were talking". In conversation, if you use the imperfect whenever you would use the past progressive in English, you'll be right most of the time. In written Spanish, you may need to be more cautious. Apr 2, 2016 at 14:02
  • The two people were in a setting where they would only be speaking in a duration of a few minutes to an hour but only during that day. They did not know each other but simply encountered each other in a public setting and were talking about current events. Apr 2, 2016 at 14:29

2 Answers 2


Actually it depends on what they were doing at the exact moment you met them. The difference is what happens when: Estuvieron means that it happened continuously over a certain amount of time whereas estaban means that at a certain point in time it happened but is not happening anymore. Below I give you some hints.

If they were still talking at the exact moment you are referring you should say:

Fui al aeropuerto esta tarde. El hombre y la mujer estaban hablando sobre algo. Hablaban sobre lo mucho que les gusta el queso. ¡Me encanta el queso!

If the man and the woman were talking during some time after you met them:

Fui al aeropuerto esta tarde. El hombre y la mujer estuvieron hablando sobre algo. Hablaban sobre lo mucho que les gusta el queso. ¡Me encanta el queso!

Also, if the man and the woman stopped talking before I saw them we could use either form:

Fui al aeropuerto esta tarde. El hombre me comentó que la mujer y él estuvieron hablando ...

Fui al aeropuerto esta tarde. Un transeúnte me comentó que el hombre y la mujer estaban hablando...

Fui al aeropuerto esta tarde. La mujer me contó que ella hablaba con el hombre sobre lo mucho que les gustaba...

In fact, it all depends on you time reference. If you are writing, you should add more information about what they were doing and when. If you are talking and someone has a question about what you mean, they will ask.


my tip is " always ask a native speaker what the natural way to say is " in this case the super natural one we always use without thinking about it is "Yo llegue al aeropuerto y ellos estaban hablando de sus cosas personales" we use " they had spoken for hours " with a time marker just when we want to give emphasis to sething else that occured during that conversation e.g. they had spoken for hours , that is why they had drank so much tea..in writing is always good to use variety bit, in speaking we have a very specific way to say things, if you use a different way than we usually use you will not sound wrong but, you really will learn unnatural.. Thanks.

  • I do not understand your tip. Why do you think @muchschair posted here if not to get tips from native speakers?
    – mdewey
    Apr 12, 2016 at 12:32

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