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Una vez eso fue una escuela

That was a school once.

Why is "eso" used rather then "esa"? I would think that the proper conjugation is "esa", in order to agree with the feminine word "escuela".

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    Because, in this case, eso is not referring to the school, but rather, something else entirely.
    – dockeryZ
    Jan 23 '16 at 21:47
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The "demonstrative pronouns" (ese/esa/eso among others) can function as adjectives (they are attached to a noun) or as nouns (they take the place of another noun).

In English a single word can fullfill both functions:

I don't like this song. (adjective: 'this' qualifies the noun 'song')

I don't like this. (noun: 'this' replaces some thing)

In Spanish, though there are no universal rules, but the typical uses are:

eso : noun : "No me gusta eso" [*]

ese : adjective, masculine: "No me gusta ese sonido"

esa : adjective, feminine: "No me gusta esa casa"

Hence, your example is right. "eso" functions as a noun. A different construction, as adjective, could be "Una vez ese edificio fue una escuela". "Una vez esa casa fue una escuela".

[*] The gramatical gender of "eso" is masculine [**], but because it's a noun, not an adjetive, it does not have any concordance rule with the other noun it replaces. An exception is when the thing alluded is a person, then we normally use the forms "ese/esa" (as nouns).

"Esa era mi novia"

"Ese es mi tío"

[**] (as per comment) Some prefer to say that "eso" is neutral gender. That's true in a semantic sense, in the same sense that in English he/she/it are respectively masculine/feminine/neutral. But in Spanish nouns, adjectives, artices and pronouns also (and mainly) have a gramatical gender (something English doesn't have at all), which is not directly related with the semantic (the masculinity of the alluded thing) but it's instead tied to concordance rules - and there are no neutral gender here: we have masculine and feminine only. All this is debatable, (lastly, it's about a grammatical terminology) and there are lots of pages discussing this.

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    Actually, eso is neuter Jan 18 '16 at 3:57
  • Silly me accidentally scrolled past this answer when using the StackExcange mobile app. Excellent answer, now I understand. Jan 18 '16 at 5:54
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    Grammatically, eso has neuter gender, though. Only nouns must be masculine/feminine. Clauses and verbs are generally grammatically neuter. Adjectives, articles, and pronouns can be any of the three. The reason it's not super obvious at first glance for many is because in Spanish masculine and neuter adjectives developed from Latin into identical forms. But there is a neuter article (lo), neuter pronouns (ello, esto, eso, aquello, and historically aquesto), and neuter adjectives (ending in -o: nadar es divertido, cf. Asturian nadar ye divertío [neut]; el xuegu ye divertíu [masc]) Jan 18 '16 at 16:30
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There's nothing wrong with esa, and there's really nothing wrong with ese even. Because a demonstrative pronoun is used, the question is what is in the speaker's mind when they utter ese/a/o. If it's a masculine thing, like edificio, they'll use ese. If it's a feminine thing, like estructura, they'll use esa. If it can't be reduced to a simple noun, perhaps to refer to the general area (imagine a handwaving around to generalize the location), they'll use eso.

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  • But in the example, 'eso' clearly refers to the feminine noun, "escuela". So isn't the use of "eso" incorrect in this case? Jan 18 '16 at 3:10
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    @RockAnthonyJohnson actually escuela is the least likely thing for it to refer to. It doesn't make much sense to say "That school was once a school". You'll normally be saying that something (currently other than a school) was once a school. If it was translated en->es, the translator probably went with eso to avoid referring to anything concrete (since the English one doesn't specify what the that is) Jan 18 '16 at 3:14
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I believe the given responses already answer the question. However, as there is still some misunderstanding I'll add some context around the original statement.

Caminábamos por la calle Alejandría; al pasar por el edificio en ruinas que estaba en la esquina con Venecia mi padre dijo con tristeza: eso que ves ahí, alguna vez fue una escuela.

Eso agrees with edificio en ruinas. At the very moment when this is being said the edificio en ruinas is no longer a school. Thus, in this case it cannot be esa

In fact, gender agreement is not necessary:

Cuando vimos la casa destruida mi padre dijo: eso que ves ahí fue una casa muy hermosa.

We indeed are referring about la casa. We are allowed to say eso because we are giving the house an indeterminate character. It's la casa but it is also un desastre, un desperdicio, un atentado contra la estética or any other meaning you could imagine.

Of course you can always say:

Cuando vimos la casa destruida mi padre dijo: esa que ves ahí fue una casa muy hermosa.

In this case we are deeming the house exactly as house and nothing else.

Now if we refer to women there are some differences. For example, if we are referring to an old woman you must say (to stay polite):

Esa fue una mujer muy bonita

Of course, the woman was never masculine unless it's a trans-gender in which case it's correct to say:

Ese fue una mujer muy bonita

Now, if we wanted to be pejorative we would say

Eso fue una mujer muy bonita (extremely rude and impolite)


As a final note, let me add that a writer (or a speaker) has (in Spanish) plenty of resources to give a special hint when trying to communicate with others. I don't really know if this is too subtle for a non-native but I would say that a non-native Spanish speaker that is able to handle these subtleties has an advanced command of the language.

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