Spanish uses this perífrasis verbal much less frequently than English uses its equivalent form, the present progressive, so before you reach for a word-for-word translation of a sentence, it’s important to understand when the present progressive is appropriate in English.
Comes [present indicative] un taco. He/She is eating [present progressive] a taco.
Está comiendo [present progressive] un taco. He/She is eating [present progressive] a taco.
Spanish often simply uses the present (indicative) tense to talk about something currently occurring. The use of the present progressive adds an extra layer of meaning and specificity that may not be as immediately apparent to English speakers.
We drink wine and watch the sunset.
We are drinking wine and watching the sunset.
Though the second example may still feel more natural, you can see how there is more focus on the fact that the action is currently progressing as you speak of it. Spanish speakers take advantage of this option, with the more default option being the present indicative, and this perífrasis verbal being used to draw attention to the continuity of the action taking place or add emphasis. So what is a perífrasis verbal? It’s the Spanish term for the combination of estar + gerundio (like the English equivalent ending in -ing).
Although Spanish doesn’t technically have a present progressive tense, the perífrasis verbal plays a similar functional role to the present progressive in other languages. For the sake of simplicity in comparing the two for an English-speaking audience, we’ll refer to this construction as present progressive in both.
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How to Form the Present Progressive
Conjugating the present progressive requires changing more than one verb. As you may have already noticed, it is formed by combining an auxiliary verb (“helping verb”) with the gerund (equivalent of the present participle) of the main verb.
Está (“He/She is”) + comiendo (“eating”).
The helping verb estar is the same as the English “to be,” and is used in the present indicative tense to form the present progressive:
|yo estoy||nosotros estamos|
|tú estás||vosotros estáis|
|él, ella, Ud. está||ellos, ellas, Uds. están|
The end result is a direct translation that’s equivalent in English and Spanish in form (though not always in its appropriate usage – see below!).
Estamos saliendo. We are leaving.
Note that the past participle is similar to the gerund (present participle) and is used to form compound tenses taking place in the past with the auxiliary verb haber (“to have”).
Example: “to run” Infinitive: correr Present participle a.k.a. gerundio: corriendo (“running”) Past participle a.k.a. participio: corrido (“run”)
He participado en muchas carreras. I have participated in many races.
For reflexive verbs or when using a pronoun, you can place it either before the auxiliary verb estar or tack it onto the end of the gerund:
Me estoy lavando las manos. Estoy lavándome las manos. I’m washing my hands.
Note that when you add the pronoun to the end of the gerund, a written accent is added to the á in this case to maintain the stress on that sound.
Not all Spanish verbs play by the rules. Irregular verbs don’t follow the dominant pattern; in fact, some don’t follow much of a pattern at all. But we’ll give you a few clues to the patterns that do exist!
Stem-Changing -IR Verbs
One category of irregular verbs is known as “stem-changing” verbs, which means that their stem usually undergoes a main change from the infinitive form to their conjugated forms. The stem can change in different ways depending on the tense.
Infinitive: dormir Regular stem: dorm- Present stem change for all except nosotros and vosotros: duerm-
Dormir (“to sleep”) in present indicative with stems in bold:
|yo duermo||nosotros dormimos|
|tú duermes||vosotros dormís|
|él, ella, Ud. duerme||ellos, ellas, Uds. duermen|
While there are stem-changing verbs in all three categories of Spanish verbs, only -IR verbs continue to change stems in their gerund form.
One way to remember how they change is to think of the stem changes for the Spanish simple past tense (preterite). -IR verbs that undergo a stem change in the third person preterite (él, ella, Ud. and ellos, ellas, Uds.) will have the same stem change in the gerundio. These changes are: -e- changes to -i-, or -o- changes to -u-
1. -e- changes to -i- Infinitive: pedir Regular stem: ped- Preterite stem change for third person forms: pid- Gerund stem change: pid- Gerund: pid- + -iendo = pidiendo
2. -o- changes to -u- Infinitive: dormir Regular stem: dorm- Preterite stem change for third person forms: durm- Gerund stem change: durm- Gerund: durm- + -iendo = durmiendo
Another irregular pattern occurs with -ER or -IR verbs which have stems that end in a vowel, in which case -iendo becomes -yendo.
Ir (“to go”) is a very irregular verb, and though it may not follow the exact rule above about ending in a vowel, it’s related enough to be thrown in with the -yendo verbs.
If the stem of an -ER or -IR verb ends in -ll or -ñ, -iendo becomes -endo.
|teñir||tiñendo||dyeing (as in to dye fabric)|
When to Use the Present Progressive
The present progressive is more often used to show some immediacy or urgency in Spanish, such as when someone is in the middle of an activity at that moment. For example, if you called your friend and asked what they were up to, they could reply:
Estoy cocinando la cena mientras ayudo a mis hijos con su tarea. I’m (in the middle of) cooking dinner while helping my children with their homework.
The extra emphasis could also be thought of in terms of this difference:
¿Qué haces? What are you doing (in general, today/now)?
¿Qué estás haciendo? What in the world are you doing (at this moment, as you notice them doing something)?
Present progressive can be used to talk about something that occurs repeatedly.
Ella siempre está haciendo cosas extrañas. She is always doing strange things.
Though it seems slightly opposite to the situation stated above, the present progressive can also be used to show that something is unusual or doesn’t habitually happen, especially in contrast to another action. In this way, it can be seen as similar to English, because the present indicative in English has a bit of a habitual connotation.
Normalmente ella camina por el parque, pero hoy está caminando por la pista de atletismo. Normally she walks [present indicative] in the park, but today she’s walking [present progressive] at the running track.
Be aware that since English often uses present progressive as its go-to present tense, the present progressive of “to go” is used to talk about things in the near future that are relatively certain. Spanish also uses its go-to present form (present indicative) to do the same thing. Make sure you don’t accidentally use present progressive in these cases:
Voy a ir al cine. I am going to go to the cinema.
Knowing when to use present progressive versus present indicative is something that heavily depends on the context. The best way to get a feel for when it’s appropriate is to pay attention to native speakers’ usage, which you can do by listening to podcasts, following Spanish speakers on social media, or using Spanish recipes when cooking. After absorbing lots of Spanish media, quiz yourself by doing an interactive course like Lingvist’s online Spanish course. Before you know it, you’ll be naturally aware of the distinction between which actions are “progressive”!