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Which Past Tense of 'Ser' or 'Estar'?

Choice of Tense Conveys Meaning

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green-lawn.jpg

El cespéd era verde. (The lawn was green.)

Photo by Sam DeLong; licensed via Creative Commons.

Question: I would love to see a lesson on how to decide if you should say fue/era/estuvo/estaba. Mostly fue/era is what is confusing. Tuve un vecino que fue/era amistoso conmigo. Fue or era? And why? This may seem like Spanish 101, but it still confuses me. I speak Spanish very well and receive compliments on my Spanish. However, I do need help with this.

Answer: You're right; it can be confusing. The differences between the preterite and imperfect tenses of ser, especially, can be subtle. In sentences where either verb form could be used, the difference might not be translatable to English without adding context.

The quick answer that era would probably be used in the sentence you gave, because you're probably talking about something that happened (or, more precisely, something that was) over an indefinite period of time. If you were to modify the sentence (or provide a context) to indicate that the neighbor was friendly only during a specific time period (for example, fue amable conmigo durante esa semana), you would use the preterite form.

As a general rule, you're normally safe using the imperfect of ser (yo era, tu eras, él o ella era, etc.) unless you're clearly talking about a specific time period (as when following the verb with durante).

Normally, the imperfect of ser would be used when providing the background to the events of what you're talking about. If however, you are talking about something that represents an action, the preterite would be appropriate. For example, if you were talking about your friendly neighbor, and there was a specific time when he became a grouch, you might say fue refunfuñón to indicate that the grouchiness was an event, not a mere background to your tale.

You could also use the preterite to indicate something was complete. For example, estuvo lista, she was ready. Similarly, the preterite could be used to show that something had a definite beginning and/or end. Note, for example, the difference between estuvo enfermo (she got sick) and estaba enferma (she was sick).

Another use for the preterite of ser, especially when used preceding an infinitive, is to indicate that something actually happened. For example, fue difícil nadar (it was difficult to swim) suggests that someone swam with difficulty, but era difícil nadar indicates that conditions were difficult for swimming without indicating whether anyone actually swam.

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