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'Fue' or 'Era'?

Uses for the Two Past Tenses of 'Ser' Overlap

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Class of students

¿Cómo fue tu clase? (How was your class?)

Photo by Kevin Dooley; licensed via Creative Commons.

Conceptually, the differences between the two simple past tenses of Spanish are fairly easy to grasp: The preterite typically refers to actions that took place at a definite time in the past, while the imperfect tense refers to actions that occurred numerous times and/or didn't have a definite end.

However, for the foreigner, applying those concepts to the past tenses of ser can be problematic, partly because it seems in practice that native speakers commonly use the imperfect of ser (that's era in the third-person singular) for states of being that had a definite end, while an application of the rule above might suggest use of the preterite (fue in the third-person singular).

The following email exchange indicates some of the challenges in dealing with the past tenses of ser. Both sides of the written conversation have been edited for clarity, brevity and the purposes of this article.

Question: The difference between preterite and imperfect is not too hard to grasp for most verbs. As an English speaker, we certainly understand the difference between "I slept" and "I was sleeping" or "I slept at home" and "When I was in college, I would sleep at home on the weekends." But, when we want to use the past tense of "to be," it is hard to understand when to use the preterite or the imperfect, because in English we seldom say "was being" (you could say, "he was being foolish," but you wouldn't say "It was being 8 p.m.), and we never say, "used to was" or "would was." The most difficult part of figuring out the fue/era issue is in questions like the following:

  • ¿Cómo fue tu clase? Or ¿Cómo era tu clase?
  • ¿Cómo fue tu juventud? Or ¿Cómo era tu juventud?
  • ¿Cómo fue su reinado? Or ¿Cómo era su reinado?

I'm pretty sure that all of these sentences can be said, but I'm sure that they have different meanings. I'm not sure how to think about the real difference in meaning between fue and era because I don't think we have this distinction in English, even a contextual difference.

Any help with a method of thinking specifically about the differences between fue and era would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Yeah, they can be confusing. Here's a lesson I wrote some time ago, but I'm not sure how well it answers your specific question: Which Past Tense of Ser or Estar?

All of your questions would probably work best with fue. In a way, they're all talking about an event, for which the preterite typically is better. If we were talking about inherent characteristics, era would typically be better. So we might ask, ¿Cómo era tu profesor? because then we'd be talking about inherent characteristics (unless, perhaps, if the intent of the question was to ask whether the teacher had a bad day). I'll have to think about this a bit more — the distinction isn't always clear.

Question: Yes, that lesson helps but I'm still confused. I have had some native speakers tell me that the questions I posed could all be asked with either fue or era but that the following ways were the preferable ones for each sentence:

  • ¿Cómo fue tu clase?
  • ¿Cómo era tu juventud?
  • ¿Cómo era su reinado? (if you want a description of what happened during his reign), or
  • ¿Cómo fue su reinado (if you want an answer like "it was quite tyrannical")

I have a hard time making a distinction between an event and a characteristic. I read a story about a man whose daughter died. He was talking about her and said, "Esa chica, señor, era mi hija." I could think of that as an event. It might be a long event but still I can imagine a lifetime being referred to as an event. I also would think that his daughter's death was a terminating action so, for both reasons I would have used fue.

One thing that might help would be if I could see some questions in which the following answers would be best used:

  • Fue bastante malo, or
  • Era bastante malo.

If I saw a list of many questions that required the answer with fue and another list that required the answer with era, I might be able to find the commonality among the list and then discern the difference in meaning of fue and era.

Now that I think of it, the same problem exists with estuvo and estaba with questions. ... Anyway, the fue/era conflict is more important because I seem to have to make that decision much more frequently than the estuvo/estaba decision.

If you could give me some examples of when fue malo would be best used and era malo would be best used, that might help a lot.

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