On Lang-8, I posted an entry using the sentence:

Nunca éramos lo que se puede llamar amigos.

Someone corrected it to:

Nunca fuimos lo que se puede llamar amigos.

They said that "éramos" implies that I was once friends with this person, but no longer am. They said that if I were trying to say that I have never been friends with this person (which is what I am trying to say), "fuimos" would be more accurate.

I do not understand this at all. It seems logical to me that "éramos" would imply that at no point have we ever been friends, and that "fuimos" would sound weird because it seems to refer to a specific point in time.

Why is this not the case?

  • Thank you all for the incredibly articulate and in-depth responses! This was my first time asking a question on the Spanish language Stackexchange, and this has left quite an impression. I am blown away by the community here. I can't thank you guys enough for the time and thought you put into your answers. – kausmeaux Mar 5 '17 at 8:08

(Note: On the basis of a comment I made on greuze's post, I've decided to expand it into a real answer which I hope may help to further clarify the question.)

The reason why "Nunca éramos amigos" does not sound right is that "nunca" is semantically incompatible with "éramos amigos." "Nunca" refers to a finished period of time, while "ser amigos" refers to a condition which was or was not true during that period. The durative nature of "éramos" is incompatible with a condition expressed by a noun that is not merely descriptive but defining.

Notice we can say:

Nunca éramos felices en esa época.

But we cannot say:

*Nunca éramos amigos en esa época.

just as we cannot say:

*Nunca éramos novios / estudiantes / empleados / compañeros en esa época.

Combined with "nunca", the noun/adjective "amigos" acquires a more defining, less descriptive, sense, and that requires the perfect past to indicate that the people involved did not show that condition throughout that period.

Combined with "nunca", the imperfect past can then be used only with more descriptive adjectives that allow for the possibility of having and not having shown a certain quality during that period in the past:

Nunca éramos totalmente felices entonces (a veces sentíamos tristeza, otras alegría).

However, we CANNOT say:

*Nunca éramos totalmente amigos entonces (a veces éramos más amigos, otras no tanto).

Instead, we have to say:

Nunca fuimos totalmente amigos / fuimos verdaderos amigos entonces.

Just like greuze made a good point about the inconsistency of "nunca" with "éramos amigos" (which inspired me to write this answer), so did Carlos Alejo when he mentioned that, combined with another time reference that restricts the continuing nature of "nunca", "nunca" can work with "éramos amigos":

Nunca éramos amigos salvo cuando estábamos en apuros.

(This means we only "acted" as friends when we were in trouble.)

If we refer to actually being friends (the defining condition I mentioned above), then the perfect past will be used:

Nunca fuimos amigos salvo cuando estuvimos en apuros.

My acknowledgement to greuze and Carlos Alejo for their clever contributions.

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The answers to Ambiguity with respect to "tuvo" and "tenía" may shed some light. It is true that the differences between éramos and fuimos are subtle, but they are the same as in those answers.

  • If you say éramos you are referring to an unspecific moment in time.
  • If you say fuimos you are referring to a given moment in time.

Maybe a different example can help you see it better:

Nunca éramos los primeros en llegar.
Nunca fuimos los primeros en llegar.

The first sentence refers to a unspecific moment. There was a time in which you had the chance to be the first arriving, but in all that time you never arrived first. The second one refers to a given moment in time that did not take place: there were no given, specific moments in time in which you arrived first.

Yes, you are saying the same with both sentences, but the first one refers to the whole time and the second to given moments during it.

All in all, there is a subtle difference: the first case may leave an open door to the opposite. You can say:

Nunca éramos los primeros en llegar, salvo cuando los más puntuales se retrasaban.

That's why "éramos" is usually translated as "we used to be". If you say:

Nunca fuimos los primeros en llegar.

Period. That's all, you never were the first. That may be the case with your sentence, if you say "nunca éramos los mejores amigos" it sounds as it the sentence is going to be followed by "salvo cuando..." or something similar. If you really never got to be best friends, you must use "fuimos".

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From my personal understanding, the difference between the word choices is very subtle and is not literal but depends more on the connotaion of the words.

In either case, "Fuimos" and "Éramos" translate to "were" directly as "Never were we what can be called friends". However despite having the same literal meaning, how the sentence is read adds more depth to the sentence.

If the sentence is read "Nunca éramos lo que se puede llamar amigos.", it would be understood that you may have been friends, but were never truly friends. If the sentence is read "Nunca fuimos lo que se puede llamar amigos.", it would be understood that at no point in the past have you ever been friends.

I believe this falls under a very gray area of Spanish and usually will be understood the exact same way by both spanish-learners and native speakers.

The closest way I could try translating the concept is: éramos- relationship never existed fuimos- The relationship has never existed

(P.S.: I apologize for the unclarity or any grammatical errors in my response. This is my first time contributing to the Stack Exchange community. Please feel free to follow up with any additional questions)

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  • 2
    Your first contribution but a good one and you pick a difficult question to start. Welcome and keep up contributing. – DGaleano Mar 3 '17 at 16:59

Nunca éramos sounds very weird in Spanish, I'd say that it is not correct (I don't know the exact rule in this case), you could say, however, with a similar meaning:

No éramos lo que se puede llamar amigos.

In this case, you mean that you are not friends (but you could or could not have been friends in the past. You could join both forms in a sentence like:

Fuimos amigos, pero ya no lo éramos

Meaning that you were friends in the past, but not anymore.

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  • 2
    I agree with you that the clue to why "Nunca éramos amigos" does not sound right is that "nunca" is semantically incompatible with "éramos amigos." ser amigos, ser enemigos, ser novios refer to non-gradable conditions. We can say "ser muy amigos" (in which case "amigos" is gradable), but combined with "nunca" the noun/adjective "amigos" acquires a more defining, less descriptive, sense. These sentences also don't work for the same reason: *Nunca era gerente / *Nunca era miembro del foro. We need "fui/fue" (depending on the person) in these cases. – Gustavson Mar 3 '17 at 14:21
  • Only one correction, greuze: I think Habíamos sido amigos, pero ya no lo éramos sounds better than Fuimos amigos, pero ya no lo éramos. – Gustavson Mar 3 '17 at 14:22

In my opinion, both are correct, but "fuimos" is normally used in that phrase. Even so, using "éramos" does not mean in any case "that we used to be friends, but no longer are".

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As a concise supplement to other answer that might help conceptually:

Saying that there was never a specific time negates the past by covering every specific moment, more thoroughly than negating a vague, unspecified period.

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