Sometimes it is clear when the imperfect is an habitual action.

Yo dibujaba los lunes por la mañana. I used to draw on Monday mornings.

And other times it is clear that it is a continuous action.

Yo dibujaba el lunes por la mañana. I was drawing Monday morning.

Yo hablaba cuando mi profesor me interrumpió. I was speaking when my professor interrupted me.

However, there are times when i think it is ambiguous.

Rosa hacía su tarea a las 9:00. Rosa [was doing] / [would do] her homework at 9:00.

Eduardo bailaba y su novia cantaba. Eduardo [was dancing] / [would dance] and his girlfriend [was singing] / [would sing].

  • 1
    That is correct. Good observation. You'd need the context to narrow things down. – aparente001 Apr 6 '18 at 1:06
  • When speaking about a continuous action I'd personally use a continuous tense just like you use "is/was + ing". So I would say "Rosa hacía las tareas a las 9:00" but "Rosa estaba haciendo su tarea a las 9:00 [when...]". But I agree with @aparente001, those sentences are going to be included in a greater context that will help you understand how the tense is used. – Charlie Apr 6 '18 at 6:05
  • yup, that is correct, the imperfect past tense can fall into ambiguity because we might know or not know if it has already finished, we might even use it like that intentionally – Mike Apr 6 '18 at 17:17

You are right to point out that the imperfect is sometimes ambiguous, but that really only happens when you take sentences in isolation. Sometimes when you're learning a language, textbooks present such sentences to the student. In real life you basically won't ever find them in isolation, or if so, you'll have the chance to follow up with a clarifying question.

Some examples of context that would resolve the ambiguity in this case:

  • If the context includes a definite fact expressed in the preterit, then the imperfect is probably a continuous action (or "past progressive"). Rosa hacía su tarea a las 9:00 cuando Roberto salió de la habitación. = "Rosa was doing her homework at 9:00 when Roberto left the room." The fact that there's a concrete, finished event (e.g. Roberto leaving the room) sets the context for the continuous action that was taking place when that event happened (e.g. Rosa doing her homework).

  • This "preterit in context" need not be in the same sentence, of course. Suppose a text says: Roberto salió de la habitación. Rosa hacía su tarea. Although there's no explicit indication, it's rather obvious that Roberto left the room while Rosa was doing her homework. This is one case where some native speakers would rather make that explicit that by saying Rosa estaba haciendo su tarea instead.

  • If the context includes another imperfect, it's probably all habitual: Eduardo bailaba y su novia cantaba. = "Eduardo would dance and his girlfriend would sing." This will also probably have some sort of temporal context elsewhere, e.g. a phrase like en esa época "at that time" or cuando eran pequeños "when they were little" or todos los días "every day".

  • Several habitual events in the imperfect may appear coordinated using pauses (commas in writing) and the conjunction y (as above), or one may appear subordinated to the other using mientras: Rosa hacía su tarea a las 9:00 mientras Roberto tomaba el desayuno. = "Rosa would do her homework at 9:00 while Roberto had breakfast."

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