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I have been learning Spanish for about 4 months now and came across the first hurdle which I really can't overcome by myself. In my book (Gramática de uso del español, Luis Aragonés), one of the usages of indefinido says:

Se usa el pretérito indefinido de ser para valorar hechos o situaciones del pasado.

with the following examples:

La civilización maya fue muy pacifíca.

Dalí fue un gran pintor.

Then, the following is written for imperfecto:

Se usa el pretérito imperfecto de ser para describir personas, cosas o lugares en pasado.

Era alto y moreno.

I don't understand why 'Dalí fue un gran pintor.' is not a description. Is it because it is not a fact, but rather an opinion?

Then, in the exercise section, there are two sententces (answers from the key in parenthesis):

Marconi (fue) un gran inventor.

Los mayas (eran) grandes constructores.

So, in the very first example: 'La civilización maya fue muy pacifíca.' (which is pretty much as saying 'Los mayas fueron pacifícos.', right?), yet the very last example is: 'Los mayas eran grandes constructores.'

What gives? Could anybody please clarify this for me?

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Absent other context, both sentences are perfectly acceptable and virtually interchangeable. However, they will change meaning substantially if you provide additional context.

An imperfect sentence generally has two interpretations. Either it represents something on going, or something habitual. In either case, it is something that occurs simultaneously with something else, hence it's also called the copreterite. If the other action is also imperfect, then the interpretation is that both actions were occurring simultaneously (or habitually) over the same period of time. If the other action is in the preterite, then the preterit action is interpretted to have interrupted the imperfect one:

  • Él pintaba y dibujaba cuando era niño. (simultaneous habitual)
  • Él pintaba mientras dibujaba aquel día. (simultaneous non-habitual)
  • Él pintaba cuando decidió dibujar. (interruption)

Effectively, using imperfect never advances the narrative timeline, such that other actions occur at during the base action. Notice:

  • Él pintaba ayer. (timeline is still in yesterday, absent other indications, a preterite action will be interpreted as ocurring yesterday)

On the other hand, a preterite verb does advance the narrative timeline, such that other actions occur after the base preterite action. This is why (non-habitual) sequences of actions are always in preterite, even with verbs that normally might sound odd in preterite.

  • Él pintó ayer. (timeline is now past yesterday. Absent other indications, a preterite action will be interpreted as occurring sometime after yesterday, e.g. today)
  • Él pintó un cuadro, dibujó algo para un cliente, y se fue a dormir. Durmió tres horas antes de despertarse de nuevo. (timeline advances after each verb: he paints, then he draws, then he goes to bed, then he sleeps. Timeline is now set to after he wakes up).

So in your example with the Maya, if I wanted to discuss things related to the fact that they were peaceful, I'd need to use the imperfect, because my statements are all based around that description's timeframe. On the other hand, if we're concerned more with the fact that the civiliation was peaceful (and now is not, or no longer exists) and we will not discuss events during the peaceful time, preterite is the better choice. In isolation, preterite sounds a bit better to my ears, but imperfect is absolutely acceptable.

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  • This is one good explanation, thank you. So, to summarize - it all depends on the context, and for standalone sentences as quoted in my question, there is no one absolute answer, right? – wujek May 11 '15 at 18:18
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In this case, you can actually use both.

Los mayas eran grandes constructores.

Los mayas fueron grandes constructores.

Both sentences have the same meaning. Since the fact of being great builders can be seen as a fact or as a quality.

I am a native Spanish speaker, and I can see no difference between the sentences I have quoted.

However, in most of the sentences you cannot exchange these two tenses.

El perro era feroz.

This means that the dog was generally fierce. It's a general feature of the dog.

However,

El perro fue feroz.

This means that the dog was fierce once (for a short period of time). It's not a general feature of the dog, but a particular one.

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  • Thanks. How about the question about 'fact' vs 'opinion'? As in 'Dalí fue un gran pintor.' vs 'Mi abuela era pequeña.' – wujek May 10 '15 at 19:52
  • @wujek fact and opinion do not enter into the equation between simple preterit and imperfect. – user0721090601 May 10 '15 at 20:51
  • @guifa Exactly! – Airman01 May 10 '15 at 21:13
  • So how would you explain the different tenses used in the 'Dali' and 'abuela' sentences? Also, one of the definitions says 'valorar hechos'. I simply don't understand the difference in these two examples. – wujek May 10 '15 at 21:58

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