Good afternoon,

I have a question regarding what is the more common way (grammar structure) of saying things like "I was doing this...". Meaning that action has started in the past, was continued for some time and then finished with no definite ending stated.

I know that indicativo imperfecto past tense could be used in such case, because it is used for repeated actions in the past (was doing, used to, etc.). Let's take this as an example: I was talking = Yo hablaba (indicativo imperfecto). But I suppose you could also use continuous progressive construction in same indicativo preterito tense: Estar + past participle: Yo estaba hablado.

Which is the more commom way of saying this? How it is decided by a speaker/writer which construction to use? I suppose casual everyday speach speaking is more flexible and forgiving that writing.

My assumption is that "Yo hablaba" would have more wide meaning - not only "was speaking", but also "used to speak about something in the past", "used to speak every Sunday about something", etc. Correct?

  • I was talking when he entered the room. That is not hablava. It is estava hablando cuando etc. Just like English.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 23:02

2 Answers 2


This is not an exhaustive list of possible uses, but a list of examples where the two forms contrast.

You use the imperfect when you speak of past habitual actions ("used to", "would"). For example:

  • Íbamos a misa todos los domingos. ("We went to church every Sunday.")
  • Ella se enojaba cuando yo la criticaba. ("She used to get angry whenever I criticized her.")

Note how, in English, you're forced to make your point with things like "used to" and "whenever" if you want to convey the idea of habitual actions.

For continuous actions in the past you're free to choose:

  • ¿Qué estabas haciendo solo ahí adentro? ("What were you doing in there alone?")
  • ¿Qué hacías solo ahí adentro? (same)

The progressive pattern sounds better if the action was stopped by something else (although the imperfect is OK too):

  • Estaba hablando por teléfono cuando tocaron a la puerta. ("I was speaking on the phone when they knocked on the door.")
  • Justo antes del accidente estábamos pensando en eso. ("Just before the accident we were thinking about that.")

If two continuous actions are going on in the past at the same time, use the simple imperfect with both:

  • Él cocinaba mientras ella limpiaba. ("He cooked while she cleaned.")
  • Las aves emigraban a medida que el invierno se acercaba. ("The birds emigrated as the winter approached.")

There are many other possible scenarios, but in short, you see that the progressive (estar + gerund) tends to be associated with continuous actions that are interrupted or stopped by something else, either explicitly or implicitly (as in ¿Qué estabas haciendo...?). In other cases the plain imperfect is enough.

  • Did you leave out a "not" in the first sentence after "is"?
    – mdewey
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 15:31
  • Thank you for explanation. Seems that past progressive pattern (estaba hablando) is used in Spanish in same cases as in English. The only difference is regarding last point: In Spanish - If two continuous actions are going on in the past at the same time, use the simple imperfect with both. But in English you would use past continuous with both. englishpage.com/verbpage/pastcontinuous.html
    – Alex
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 16:11
  • @mdewey Yes, thank you. :)
    – pablodf76
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 19:30
  • @Alex - But I can think of progressive sentences with two actions (two gerunds). Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 22:25

The progressive form is used more for setting a scene. It emphasizes the continuing nature of the verb.

  • El teléfono sonó a las 7. Estábamos desayunando y haciendo planes para ir al zoológico. | The phone rang at 7. We were having breakfast and making plans to go to the zoo.

The plain imperfect (great term coined by @pablodf76), on the other hand, brings the focus squarely on the action, and then an adverb will be included:

  • Cuando mi hijo estaba pequeño y todavía dormía la siesta, cenábamos tarde y nos acostábamos tarde. Cuando dejó la siesta, nuestro horario cambió. Cenábamos a más tardar a las cinco y media, y ya para las siete ya estábamos en piyama leyendo un libro para apagar la luz a las ocho. | When my son was little and still had an afternoon nap every day, we had [would have] dinner late and go to bed late. When he stopped napping, our schedule changed. We had [would have] dinner by 5:30, and by 7:00 we were already in PJs reading a book, with lights out by 8.

These two patterns hold just the same for hablar.

  • El teléfono sonó a las 7 cuando estábamos desayunando y haciendo planes para ir al zoológico. Claro. Y sería igualito en inglés.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 23:04

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