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I've always struggled with the past tense forms of "to be". I have no issues determining whether to use ser or estar in present tense, but the added factors of imperfect vs preterite always throws me off.

This is how I see the uses of the forms.

Estaba: For describing an ongoing past tense, non-permanent/identity, event. "It was dark at the party".

Estuve: For describing an instantaneous, non-permanent/identity, event. "She was furious (at the moment)"

Era: For describing ongoing permanent characteristics or identities. "He was a happy man"

Fue: For describing instantaneous permanent characteristics or identities. I honestly have no idea when or how to use this properly in the "to be" sense (not the ir sense).

My ideas are likely faulty and totally wrong. Would anyone be able to correct them for me and help me to understand when to use each of the forms?

Thanks!

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You should identify imperfect/preterite:

  • Preterite: Actions ended/finished. You can use this to tell a story.

  • Imperfect: An action from the past, but one that hasn't necessarily ended.

The use of ser/estar in the past is similar to how it is used in the present.

Okay, let me explain this:

"She was very pretty."

"Ella fue muy bonita." -> Preterite / ser, she was pretty but isn't pretty now.

"Ella era muy bonita." -> Imperfect / ser, she may or may not be pretty now.

"Ella estaba muy bonita." -> Preterite / estar, she was pretty at one specific period of time, for example, at a party.

"I was fat."

"Yo fui gordo." -> Preterite / ser, I was fat, but I am not fat anymore.

"Yo era gordo." -> Imperfect / ser, I am not talking about the present, I may or may not be fat now.

"Yo estuve gordo." -> Preterite / estar, I am talking about a concrete state, "In the 70s, I was fat." The action has ended, I am not fat anymore.

"Yo estaba gordo." -> Imperfect / estar, I am talking about a concrete state, such as, "In the 70's, I was fat." I am not expressing anything about the present.

"It was dark at the party."

"Estaba oscuro en la fiesta." -> Preterite / estar, I am talking about a story from the past that has ended or maybe the lights went on (so it is no longer dark).

"Estuvo oscuro en la fiesta." -> Imperfect / estar, I am not expressing anything. Maybe it is still dark or maybe it isn't.

"Era/fue oscuro en la fiesta." -> It doesn't make sense to use era/fue with oscuro; the quality of being light or dark is usually something that is in a fluctuating state as in, it may be dark now, but it won't be dark forever.

"She was furious."

"Ella estaba furiosa." -> Preterite / estar, she was upset.

"Ella estuvo furiosa." -> Imperfect / estar, she was upset (this usually is used in an early-past, so she may be furious still).

"Ella era/fue furiosa." -> Doesn't make sense, furious isn't an identity, it's a state, a fluctuating situation. Nobody is furious forever.

"He was a happy man."

"Él fue un hombre feliz." -> Preterite / ser, he lost the happiness somehow (perhaps he is now dead?).

"Él era un hombre feliz." -> Imperfect / ser, is he happy now? We don't know, but it is possible.

"Él estaba/estuvo un hombre feliz." -> Never! You shouldn't use "estar" with "un/una." Anyway, happy is an identity, not a state.


Editor's note: While it is true that "happy" can be considered an "identity," it can also be a fluctuating condition. For example, someone can be a happy person in general or just happy at a particular moment in time for a particular reason. But, as you can see from the discussion in this thread here, there appears to be a lack of consensus on whether or not one should use "ser" or "estar" with "feliz." This graph from Google's Ngram Viewer, further supports that "estoy feliz" is being used by some:

I did not do a thorough examination of these examples. In fact, I didn't conduct any at all, but while I have difficulty finding it natural that native Spanish speakers would have more reason to say I'm happy (as in I'm a happy person) over "I'm happy" (at this moment in time), I readily see a need to use "ser" for instances in which one might wish to express "I want to be happy" or "I want to learn to be happy." Typically, these last two sentiments are making reference to a permanent condition and not a singular, fleeting moment in time.

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    @Lisa thanks for your edits, they are a great improve to the post! What I don't see as necessary is the editor's note: if it was a suggested edit, it would probably be rejected as "trying to reply to the answer". In general, if you disagree with something the answer says, it is common to indicate so in comments. Thanks again! – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Sep 25 '19 at 7:39
  • @walen Sorry about the numerous edits. Clearly, I have now finished. It was late and I was trying to get through it quickly and kept thinking I must have just missed that one thing, and, well, I kept finding things to edit. As for the issue of wrong concepts and writing a "correct" answer that few native speakers/Spanish teachers/grammarians would agree to, that's a bit of a tall order, especially since I visited the page to refresh my understanding of the past tense forms of these two verbs. Plus, I'd kind of feel like I was hijacking amchacon's answer. – Lisa Beck Sep 26 '19 at 7:39
  • (cont.) Why don't we give amchacon a chance to view my edits and the additional comments first? He edited his answer once before when someone called him on something, so he might be agreeable to taking a second look at what he's written. As for making my editor's note a comment, yeah, I suppose I could have done that, but my note seemed a bit too long for a mere comment. But more than that, I was also trying to spruce up the comment with a little visual relief. It is tedious to read a long answer without any illustrative images. What you can post in a comment is rather limited. – Lisa Beck Sep 26 '19 at 7:43
  • @walen Well, let's just say I've seen some threads that indicate there's some different points of view on the use of "estaba" and "estuvo" and though I can't recall having looked too hard for information on this topic, I've visited a lot of pages on one aspect of the Spanish language or another and I don't recall one that is all that definitive with regard to "estaba" and "estuvo," (or "fue" / "era," for that matter), nor do I recall any that cite any authoritative sources. – Lisa Beck Sep 28 '19 at 13:25
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    (cont.) At best, I'm at the B1/B2 level. I just feel that this is an important topic and one that deserves to be addressed by someone who is, ideally, a native Spanish speaker and someone who has taught Spanish to English speakers. Short of that, a native speaker or near fluent with excellent research skills would be the ideal person for tackling this topic. – Lisa Beck Sep 28 '19 at 13:27
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Simple answer (you can refine this later, when you are farther along):

If you're describing a scene or state of being, you use a descriptive past tense (estaba, era).

Estaba en el patio leyendo el periódico cuando empezó a llover.

If you're talking about something completed, you use the preterite.

Ya leí ese periódico, lo puedes reciclar si quieres.

By the way, your idea of "estuve furiosa" doesn't work, in practice, because being furious is a state of being.

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    «estuve furiosa» works without problem. While there aren't enough accounts in books to get a good NGram, you can see with a similar word like feliz that it's quite possible and used in practice: books.google.com/ngrams/… – user0721090601 Oct 15 '15 at 1:57
  • But feliz is so different from furiosa. And the OP isn't ready for the fine points yet. – aparente001 Oct 15 '15 at 2:13
  • @walen - I'm glad I missed that wedding! – aparente001 Sep 26 '19 at 5:03

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