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When to use the imperfect:
simple vs continuous and imperfect vs preterite continuous

On the previous page, we summarsed imperfect tense usage compared to other tense uses in Spanish. Here, we'll look at a couple of specific dilemmas that spring up around the imperfect tense.

The problem that essentially springs up particularly for English-speaking learners is that there are "too many forms" in Spanish that can translate was/were ...ing. In Spanish, each of the imperfect and preterite can occur in either simple or continuous forms, giving the following four combinations:

Imperfectcaminabaestaba caminando
Preteritecaminóestuvo caminando

The choice between these is sometimes confusing for English speakers because all the forms in red (i.e. all except for caminó) are frequently translated as was walking. So what's the difference?

Simple vs continuous: caminaba vs estaba caminando

There are many cases where the simple and continuous imperfect tense forms are more or less interchangeable. In general:

  • the continuous forms (estaba caminando etc) appear to be slightly more common when the idea is genuinely "in the middle of ...ing", but both forms are possible with this meaning;
  • with the habitual ("used to...") meaning, the simple imperfect tense form is generally used;
  • there are a few verbs that Spanish speakers don't generally use in the continuous form as they tend to refer to fairly permanent "states".

The last point refers to verbs such as parecer ("to look, appear")1, faltar/sobrar ("to be lacking/surplus"). For example:

ya parecía cansada cuando llegué
(Not: estaba pareciendo)
"She was already looking tired when I arrived"
nos sobraba comida antes de que él llegara
(Not: nos estaba sobrando)
"We had a surplus of food before he arrived"
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Imperfect vs preterite: estaba/estuvo caminando

Both of these forms are commonly translated by was/were ...ing in English. They both refer to actions that are viewed as being "drawn out" over a period of time. But the preterite (i.e. estuvo caminando etc) also views the action as completed. So it tends to be used when the speaker wants to emphasise that an action "went on" for a period of time, but where they also mention a phrase such as durante X horas, toda la mañana, hasta ayer etc: that is, a phrase that delimits the action. Compare, for example:

estaba trabajando cuando llegué
he was working when I arrived
estuvo trabajando toda la noche
he was working all night
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In the first case, the imperfect (continuous) is used as the speaker doesn't actually state when the person stopped working, just that they were "in the middle of" working at that point. In the second case, the speaker actually delimits the period over which the person was working.

Note that the imperfect is generally used to describe a repeated action that occurred within a delimited time (e.g. "all night") but where overall the sequence of actions is not delimited. For example: estaba trabajando toda la noche would generally imply that the person repeatedly worked all night. That is, they were working every night over a non-specified series of nights.

1. Curiously, verse, which has a similar meaning to parecer, is used with a continuous form. So ya se estaba viendo cansada cuando... is grammatical.

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