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How would one choose between ser and estar while translating this syntax into Spanish? Here's an example sentence:

Those homes had been demolished.

Which of the following would be a more appropriate way to say it in Spanish and why?

Se habían sido demolidas aquellas casas.

Se habían estado demolidas aquellas casas.

Or, would it be more natural to just skip ser/estar altogether and say something like this (although I understand it slightly alters the meaning to "...were demolished" instead of "...had been demolished")?

Se demolieron aquellas casas

3

Neither, actually.

There's no need for a reflexive pronoun if you're going to use ser or estar. You could use the se pasivo in place of the true pasive (that uses ser), however. The following to sentences are, absent any agent, roughly equivalent:

  • Habían sido demolidas aquellas casas (… por alguien/algo). The houses had been demolished (... by someone/something).
  • Se habían demolido aquellas casas. The houses had gotten demolished.

Notice the agent can only be added in the first. If you use estar, however, we are no longer talking about the act of demolishing, rather the result of their demolition.

  • Habían estado demolidas aquellas casas (desde …). The houses had been demolished / in a demolished state (since …).

In this case, you can substitute quedar or resultar for estar and it might make it a bit clearer what's being said: había quedado/resultado demolidas aquellas casas.

Se demolieron says that they got demolished, but doesn't allow you to specify who demolished them. Also, it happens contemporaneously in a past time frame. Since using the pluperfect has it happen before a given time frame, context will dictate whether you need to use one or the other.

So ultimately, to decide which form to use, you need to think whether you want to focus on the action (use true passive or se pasivo) or the result (use estar), whether you want it as part of the past narration (use preterite) or something that happens before the narration (use pluperfect or even antepreterite), and if you are focusing on the action, whether you wish to admit an agent (use true passive) or if that's not important (use se pasivo).

In general, Spanish speakers don't like stacking verbs as much as we do in English1, and so prefer se pasivo over true passive. However, I have noticed my friends from Central America using true passive far more often than speakers elsewhere, but that could also potentially be due to influence from English as they're all native bilinguals.


1. Compare He couldn't've been going to see the movie which sounds quite natural in English to its translation No podía haber estado yendo a ver la peli which sounds positively wretched, although perfectly grammatical.

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  • Thanks for the detailed explanation. It just couldn't have been better! I still have a question though. "Habían estado demolidas aquellas casas..." Can this syntax also be used with a specific time, such as "The house was demolished yesterday"? Can we say "habían estado demolidas aquellas casas ayer"? – TheLearner Dec 9 '14 at 6:02
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    @AmitSchandillia Not normally. It's like saying "The flowers had been wilted yesterday" where wilted is an adjective (not a participle). By that I mean it's grammatical, but doesn't make much sense in isolation. If you put in Ya … … … antes de que / cuando …, it'd work a lot better: "Ya habían estado demolidas aquellas casas ayer cuando llegué a la ciudad para demolerlas" – user0721090601 Dec 9 '14 at 6:12
  • I agree the "had been yesterday" construct won't make much sense when used with an adjective, e.g. the way you've used wilted. But in my example, I am trying to use demolished as a participle. Is it still unnatural? Let's take another example to illustrate my question: "All the potatoes had been eaten yesterday." Here, eaten is not an adjective, right? How will I translate this to sound most natural? – TheLearner Dec 9 '14 at 6:21
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    @AmitSchandillia Then you must use ser or se pasivo. The way to force that interpretation in English is to add by someone afterwards. Todas las patatas habían sido comidas ayer por alguien or Se habían comido todas las patatas (All the potatoes had been/gotten eaten yesterday by someone). Still sounds weird without a reference timeframe, though. – user0721090601 Dec 9 '14 at 6:29
1

It might be helpful to give a little more context about what you're trying to say.

If asked how to translate "Those houses had been demolished", it seems fairly straightforward: Aquellas casas habían sido demolidas.

As has been pointed out, the English original has ambiguities around agency and the moment in time to which it refers. Do you want to retain those points of ambiguity in Spanish?

As a rule, I would always go for the simpler construction. I avoid complex tenses that put temporal brackets around actions unless that is what you intend and there is no other way to achieve that goal. It's grammatically possible, but it would require summersaults to use the past participle of estar in that sentence without coming across as merely clumsy.

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