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When to use continuous verb forms in Spanish?

In our present continuous tutorial, we kept things simple and said that English -ing forms are equivalent to Spanish -ando/-iendo forms. But there are actually some differences between when the two languages use the simple (I come) versus continuous (I'm coming) forms. In our page on the imperfect continuous, we similarly translated this form as was/were ...ing. But there are a few cases where English uses was/were ...ing and the imperfect continuous is not an appropriate translation in Spanish.

Saying what you're "in the middle of doing"

Both languages use continuous verb forms to describe what a person is "in the middle of doing" at the time of speaking (or to describe an event that is unfolding at the time of speaking etc). The main difference is that:

In Spanish, the simple present can also be used to describe an action or event that is "in the middle of being carried out".

So in Spanish, to say "I'm making lunch at the moment", you can use either the simple or continuous present:

estoy preparando la comida en este momento or
preparo la comida en este momento
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Contrast this with English, where native speakers would not say I make lunch at the moment.

Describing an imminent event

In English, the continuous verb form is used to describe "imminent" events, particularly when a time is mentioned (at six, later, tomorrow etc), but where there's no actual schedule or timetable being referred to. For example:

he's coming at three this afternoon
I'm seeing him tomorrow
what time are you leaving the office this evening?
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Note that in English, the simple present is ungrammatical in many of these cases, unless reference is being made to some kind of schedule or timetable1. For example, native English speakers would not usually say he comes at three this afternoon, I see him tomorrow etc.

In general, the simple and continuous tenses are used the other way round in Spanish for this purpose. The simple present is used to describe an imminent event.

For example:

viene a las tres
he's coming at three
lo veo mañana
I'm seeing him tomorrow
¿a qué hora sales de la oficina?
what time are you leaving the office?
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Note that the continuous form is ungrammatical in Spanish in these cases. Spanish speakers would not say está viniendo a las tres etc.

Restrictions/notes on the imperfect continuous

In general, the restrictions on the present continuous carry over into the past and apply to the imperfect continuous. In particular:

1. For example, "Due to strike action, the bus leaves at 7:15 today.". Speakers might similarly say "What time do you leave the office this evening?", but the implication would be slightly different (meaning something like "what time are you scheduled to leave...?" rather than "What time will you actually be walking out the door?").

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