Below is an excerpt from Sábato's El Túnel.

La frase "todo tiempo pasado fue mejor" no indica que...

I'm reading this as follows:

The phrase "the past was better" does not indicate that...

I'm confused as I have been taught that descriptions of the past required the imperfect. In this case, I'm unsure of how to read this as I'm expecting to see era and not fue.

Could this be a stylistic choice by Sábato?

  • 1
    I suggest you think of it as: The phrase "everything in the past was better" does not mean that etc. Consider "Todo vestido fue negro." You can think of this as "Each dress was black;" as a logical syllogism (if p then q statement). In other words, if the article of clothing was a dress, then it was black. You could say "Todo vestido era negro" as a description of someone's closet during her black phase; but if you want to make a statement of a natural or unnatural law, then in "Todo vestido fue negro," you're doing an accounting of the state of the closet, at the moment of accounting. May 9, 2017 at 5:54

3 Answers 3


Descriptions are often in the imperfect because if I'm narrating a story, that description doesn't cease to be — the description is valid throughout at least part of the rest of the story. Preterite indicates the description was over and done with.

Consider a statement like the following:

En 2015, viví/vivía en el Perú.

Both are perfectly valid. I use the preterite if I envision the year as a single action. Perhaps my next statement would be Y después fui a Colombia. On the other hand, I use the imperfect if I am going to enter into detail about the year because the year will still be on-going within the frame of narration. For example, with imperfect my next sentence might be Trabajaba en una oficina y todos los días….

Keeping that in mind, if we look at the original sentence, if we say todo tiempo pasado fue mejor, we are talking all time in the past. We're not envisioning that as a description that continues throughout some narration. We are considering the past, in its wholeness, as a single thing that is over and done with. That fits in with the use of preterite.


The phrase is taken from one of the earliest classics in Spanish literature, Jorge Manrique's Coplas a la muerte de su padre. The first copla goes:

Recuerde el alma dormida
Avive el seso e despierte
Cómo se pasa la vida
Cómo se viene la muerte
Tan callando
Cuán presto se va el placer
Cómo después de acordado
Da dolor
Cómo a nuestro parecer
Cualquiera tiempo pasado
Fue mejor

In this medieval poem, some words have different meanings from today and also the grammar is a bit different. But the choice of verb tense still makes sense. The poet is separating the past from the present, so cualquiera tiempo pasado fue mejor deals with things concluded. Looking from the present, those things that happened in the past look better. Hence the use of the pretérito indefinido rather than the imperfecto.


The imperfect indicative form is used to refer to past actions which occurred repeatedly, or which occurred over an extended period of time.

The preterit or simple past simply denotes a past action or state.

In many cases the two conjugations are both grammatically valid and may not differ greatly in meaning. For instance:

Todo fue una gran mentira.

Todo era una gran mentira.

However, they are indeed different tenses and they have different meanings. Which one is more appropriate depends on what you are trying to say.
Consider the following sentences.

Ella corrió 60 metros en 7 segundos.

Ella corría 60 metros en 7 segundos.

The first sounds like an amazing accomplishment by a sprint runner that probably broke a world record for women.
The second sounds like a very far-fetched tale about a person who was able to run at record speed on a regular basis.

It's technically the same with the verb "ser."
With the preterit there is a sense of finality.
As Gorpik correctly pointed out, "fue" connotes conclusion in a way the imperfect indicative would not have.

I would add that a closer translation of "todo tiempo pasado fue mejor" would be "any past was better."

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