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Using the Present Progressive Tense

Verb Form Usually Emphasizes Ongoing Nature of Action

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The present progressive tense of Spanish is formed with the simple present tense of estar followed by a present participle. (A type of progressive tense can also be formed with verbs other than estar, such as andar and seguir.)

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 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.

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:

  • ¿Que es ésto 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."

Sources: Many of the sample sentences in this and other lessons are adapted from online writings of native speakers. Among the sources consulted for this lesson are: Articles3K, es.Yahoo.com, Facultad de Veterinaria, Gloria Trevi, Innovair.com, Milenio.com, Musicalandia, Twitvid Nosotros2.com, Sabada.es and Tecnomagazine.

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