WHEN TO USE THE VERB SER IN SPANISH
We’re going to use the verb ‘SER’ (to be) to talk about characteristics or for descriptions in Spanish, if we want to describe a person, in terms of physical characteristics, appearance or personality traits; or if you’d like to describe a place or a thing we’ll always use the verb “SER”.
PRETÉRITO/INDEFINIDO OR IMPERFECTO
Now that we have established when we use the verb SER in Spanish, let’s talk about these 2 verbs conjugated in different past tenses in Spanish. ERA is conjugating the third person singular for he and she of the imperfecto past tense.
♦ Él era jugador de fútbol (He used to be a soccer player)
♦ Ella era muy tímida cuando era niña (She was very shy when she was a little girl)
And FUE is conjugated for he and she as well in the third person singular, but for the pretérito/indefinido past tense.
♦ La fiesta fue el sábado (The party was on Saturday)
♦ Mi boda fue uno de los mejores días de mi vida (My wedding was one of the best days of my life).
So, the next question we need to ask ourselves is: When do we use the imperfecto and the pretérito or indefinido? We’ll analyze the difference between the pretérito with FUE and the imperfecto with ERA in 3 specific situations.
3 DIFERENCES BETWEEN ERA Y FUE
NUMBER 1: OBJECTS
The first difference we’ll see today is to describe objects in the past in Spanish. If you want to describe objects in the past we’re going to use the imperfecto tense and not the preterito tense and that is because, for descriptions, that is, when we describe things, one of the main differences between the preterito and the imperfecto is their use for descriptions. When we describe something or someone in the past in Spanish, we’re going to use the imperfecto tense and not the preterito.
Therefore, it’s correct to say:
♦ La casa era blanca (The house was white).
♦ El coche era azul (The car was blue).
♦ El anillo era de oro (The ring was made of gold).
And it’s incorrect to use FUE in these examples:
♦ La casa fue blanca = es incorrecto.
♦ El coche fue azul = es incorrecto.
♦ El anillo fue de oro à es incorrecto.
Here we need to use the imperfecto form of SER which is ERA because we’re describing objects (the house, the car, and the ring) in the past in Spanish. Therefore, we can’t use FUE in these cases.
NUMBER 2: EVENTS
The second difference is to talk about events in the past in Spanish. It can be an event or a specific period, something that took place for a specific period of time in the past.
Let’s have a look at some example of events so you can understand how to use these verbs:
Una fiesta = a party is an event.
El cine = going to the cinema is an event.
Una película = a movie.
A concert = a concert.
Una conferencia = a conference.
Una clase = a class/a lesson.
Un curso = a course.
Un juego o partido de fútbol, rugby, cricket = a soccer or rugby or cricket game/match.
Un festival = a festival.
Una feria = a fair.
Una obra de teatro = a Theatre play.
there are many other events and examples, but these are just a few to give you an idea. Whenever we want to describe an event or a specific period of time in the past, we are going to use the pretérito or indefinido past tense.
♦ La fiesta fue* divertida (the party was fun).
♦ La clase fue* interesante (The class was interesting).
♦ El día fue* bonito (The day was beautiful).
– *Estuvo is also possible here –
WHY? YOU MIGHT BE ASKING
The reason is because events happen or last for a specific period of time, the duration of an event, generally, can be from 30 minutes to two hours, three hours, ten hours; in the case of a festival. Right? A festival can be an all-day event. Events are always specific periods of time and that’s why we use the preterito here. We use the preterito or the indefinido to talk about something that has happened in the past. In this case we aren’t talking about duration, we’re not trying to emphasize anything, it is simply to say how the event was, to describe the period of time in past.
What about day (día)? How come day is an event? In the case of day, it’s a specific period of time, it’s not necessarily an event, but remember we said event or specific period of time. Then, we’re going to use the preterito or indefinido, because it’s a one-time action, we’re just describing that specific period of time, either a 30-minute period, a 2-hour period or 24 hours, in this case, the day.
Now, is it possible to use the imperfecto in this case? The answer is yes. We can say that in Spanish it’s absolutely possible. Another use for the imperfect is to use it for actions that had duration, that were in progress in the past and then were interrupted. The imperfecto past tense can also be used for an action that was happening, it was in progress before it got interrupted by another action, until something else happened. In that case, it’s possible, but if we change the verb to ERA for the imperfect in the examples we studied before, it sounds like the story doesn’t end there, the story isn’t finished. It sounds like you are going to tell me something else, something interrupted this action that was in progress in the past. It sounds like a ‘but…’ or ‘until’ is about to be mentioned.
LET’S ANALYZE THIS EXAMPLE:
♦ La fiesta era* buena hasta que llegó la policía y tuvimos que bajar la música (The party was going great until the police came, and we had to turn down the music). (*estaba would work better here – see lesson on estaba vs estuvo for more).
So, as you can see here it seems like we are describing an action that was in progress until something else happened, it was interrupted. So if you want to describe the event, or the specific period of time in the past and just say what it was like, what your experience was like and just to describe the event as a whole, stick to the pretérito/Indefinido, if you want to tell a story and talk about an action that was in progress that then was interrupted or something was going on that then changed, then, in that case, you can use the imperfecto.
REPETITIVE EVENTS AND THE IMPERFECT ‘ERA’
Another way in which we can use the imperfect to describe events in the past is when we compare an event in the past compared to the present and we usually use it in the plural, to refer to events that are repetitive or that occurred several times or at regular intervals in the past.
♦ Cuando era niño, mis fiestas de cumpleaños eran muy divertidas (When I was a kid, my birthday parties were so much fun).
♦ Las Navidades en la casa de mi abuela eran fantásticas (Christmas at my grandmother’s house was fantastic).
♦ Las fiestas del trabajo eran aburridas, pero ahora con los nuevos empleados son muy buenas (Work parties were boring, but now with the new hires they are very good).
In conclusion, it’s possible to use the imperfect to describe events in the past in Spanish, but it’s used for an incomplete action, when you are telling a story that hasn’t finished yet, you’re going to mentioned that something else happened. And the other way we can use the imperfecto for events is to talk about repetitive events, which happened several times in the past.
NUMBER 3: PEOPLE
The last point we’ll analyze is to talk about people for description, so, to describe people in the past we are going to use the imperfect, so we’ll use ERA and not FUE here.
Let’s have a look at a couple of examples:
♦ Cuando Ana era niña, era alta, era delgada y era tímida (When Ana was a kid she was tall, skinny and shy).
So, as you can see in this example, if we’re describing someone in the past, we’re going to use the imperfecto.
When we do comparisons in the past, between, for example, the past and the present, we’re going to use for the action that is in the past, the “Imperfecto” and then, of course, we’re going to use the simple present for the action in the present, to compare that past action to what we do now.
♦ Ana era tímida, pero ahora es muy sociable (Ana used to be shy but now she is sociable).
♦ Carlos era rubio cuando era niño y ahora es moreno (Carlos used to be blonde when he was a kid, now he is brunette).
In both cases it’s incorrect to use FUE because we’re describing people in the past.
Now this is when we open Pandora’s box and let it all out. The question is, can we use the pretérito or indefinido in Spanish for descriptions in the past? And the answer is yes, provided we’re describing them during a specific period of time in the past (other than when he was young, a child, etc). I’m talking about for a determined amount of days, months or years.
Look at these examples: We’re basically saying the same but slightly differently.
♦ Obama era el presidente de los Estados Unidos (Obama used to be the president of the USA)
♦ Obama fue el presidente de los Estados Unidos (Obama was a president of the USA)
The difference is saying “Obama used to be the president of the US.” And then “Obama was the president of the US.” You can see both are correct, it’s just that one is more of a description of someone’s profession, that is, Obama’s occupation in the past (era) and the other makes reference to something that happened for a specific time in the US history, from say 2009 to 2017. During that time, Obama was the President those years in the past.
The important thing to bear in mind is that both are correct, so don’t sweat it too much if you can’t see the slight difference in meaning here.
¡Muy bien! So that is the difference between ERA and FUE and the imperfect vs the preterite past tenses in Spanish, I hope this topic is a little bit easier for you to understand now.
Remember we have a free training: How to Speak Spanish with more Confidence and a gift ebook with 200 of the most verbs in Spanish. And, if you’d like to improve your Spanish with us, you can click here for more information.
I’ll see you next class! ¡Adiós!
Watch this lesson with the difference between ESTABA and ESTUVO next:
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