Ser & Estar In The Past – Era, fue, estuvo, estaba

Ser & Estar In The Past

– Era, fue, estuvo, estaba

I have been learning and teaching Spanish for many years now and from my experience I would have to say that apart from the subjunctive there are two other main challenges when it comes to mastering the Spanish language.

The first is understanding the difference between ser and estar (the two verbs that mean ‘to be’) and the second is mastering the  preterite and the imperfect past tenses.

When these two last challenges are combined ‘using ser and estar in the past’ we can really start to struggle.

With this in mind I am writing this article in the hopes of helping learners to overcome this hurdle and really being able to, as one says in Spanish …. ‘dominar’ this lovely and very expressive language.

I imagine that this article will be a work in progress for some time to come so do check back for possible updates, additions, embellishments or the like.

A good place to start may be a basic understanding of how to use the preterite and imperfect tenses.  The choice is not so much dependent on the time frame of the action/event etc that you want to refer to but it’s more about the perspective you want to give it.  For this reason you can talk about the same action/event using either the preterite or the imperfect and be perfectly gramatically correct in both cases, it’s just the perspective that will change.

Whole books have been written on this subject but I’ll see if I can get the basic idea across in one paragraph for each tense.

If you want to give the perspective of an action/event/state etc being current at the time referred to, use the imperfect tense.

Abraham Lincoln was president when he was assasinated.

Abraham Lincoln era presidente cuando fue asesinado.

If you want to give the perspective of an action/event/state being complete and restricted within a specific time period (stated or implied) then use the preterite tense.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln fue el decimosexto presidente de los Estados Unidos. 

Era, fue, estuvo, estaba???

Use era (ser) for descriptions, who or what things were or how they were.  This includes the time.

Era la una.    It was 1 o’clock.

Cuándo era niño era guapo.   When he was a child, he was handsome.

Use fue (ser) to look at things more from an event perspective, to state what or how things happened and to express the passive voice.

La primera lavadora fue inventada en 1951.

The first washing machine was invented in 1951.

Él fue golpeado por un baloncesto.

He was hit by a ball.

Use estuvo (estar) for past states, emotions, actions and locations of people and things (but not events) from a ‘completed’ perspective or when limited to a certain time period 

Estuve ocupado toda la mañana y no pude salir.

I was tied up all morning and couldn’t get away.

Estuve cenando.

I was eating dinner [for a certain amount of time].

but use estaba (estar) from a ‘current’ perspective when the length of time is unknown or irrelevant to a large degree or if you are describing a state in the past.

Estaba ocupado. I was busy.  

Estaba afuera.   I was outside.

In these cases being busy and being outside is much more important than when it happened or how long it went on for.

La casa estaba deteriorada.   The house was dilapadated. 

(this was just a state, it wasn’t always like that)


Estar for Meals & Movies

Although technically, describing past meals and movies should fit into the above ‘ser’ category (era for descriptions) it is my experience that  it is much more common to give opinions and compliments about a particular meal or movie using estar in the preterite tense.  

La comida estaba / estuvo buenísima.

The meal was delicious.

My take on the logic for this is that ser is used for the intrinsic characteristic of things in general.  

If you spoke about a meal using ‘ser’ that should cover how the meal was the last time, this time, the next time, every time in between and from then on. 

 But it’s impossible to judge all meals in general or all movies in general by the one that you just ate or the one that you just saw so (although there are bound to be exceptions) we could say that generally speaking, estar is a much better choice to give your opinion about meals or movies.


As to whether you should use the preterite or the imperfect, both are possible but the imperfect seems more common.

La comida estaba buena/mala.   The food was good/bad.


What are you really trying to say?

As mentioned previously there is not always one correct answer and the choice of verb and tense often depends on what the speaker / writer wants to communicate, the perspective they choose to come from. 

Let’s take a look at some documented examples and see if we can work out why the writer/translator chose that particular option.

Let’s start with a review of ‘The Signal-Man’ by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) fue un destacado escritor y novelista inglés.

Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was an English writer and social critic.

Why do you think that ‘fue’ was used?  Although this statement is focusing on what Charles Dickens was it is also signaling the end by stating his date of death, so it lends itself to the preterite (1812-1870) and ser is the choice for stating professions.

What about the following information about Princess Diana?

Diana, princesa de Gales (n. Lady Diana Frances Spencer, fue la primera esposa del príncipe Carlos de Gales.

In this example ser is used as it always is for professions or positions and ‘fue’ signals that at some time she stopped being the wife of Prince Charles, it is being viewed as a completed event.

Diana se educó en la escuela Silfield Kings Lynn, en Norfolk, luego en Riddlesworth Hall en Norfolk y en West Heath Girls’ School en Sevenoaks, Kent, donde era considerada una mala estudiante que había fallado todos sus niveles.

Why was ‘era’ used here?  Ser because being a bad student was characteristic of Diana as a child and ‘era’ because being bad student was the current situation at the time referred to.

Rompió su silencio, admitiendo públicamente la práctica de bulimia y autolesiones, o que era víctima de acoso rutinario por parte de fotógrafos, paparazis y periodistas.

Once again, at the time that she gave that interview she was (currently) a victim.

Título oficial mientras estuvo casada: Su Alteza Real la princesa de Gales

So here we have a case with ‘estuvo’ – why is this used here?

Well for starters casado and divorciado are usually use with ‘estar’ being a state rather than a characteristic.  Not that it’s not expected to last as we can see from death also being used with estar.  (You will occasionally see ser + casado to refer to a person being a married person – characteristic.).  

Estuvo is used here because the writer is talking about a concluded period of time and the use of ‘mientras’ is a good clue in this respect.

Here are a few excerpts from an article on Barak Obama.

Nació el 4 de agosto de 1961 en la ciudad de Honolulu, Hawái. Hijo de Barack Obama Sr., un economista keniano; y de Stanley Ann Dunham, una antropóloga estadounidense,18 quienes se conocieron cuando asistían a la Universidad de Hawái en Mānoa, donde su padre estaba matriculado como estudiante extranjero.19

Why the use of ‘estaba’ in the last sentence?

This is because the time when her father ‘was attending / enrolled at’ university set the background for Barak’s parents to meet.  Imperfect for the background (estaba) preterite for the event that took place on that stage (se conocieron).

 Luego regresó a vivir en Honolulu con sus abuelos maternos y en 1971 fue inscrito en el quinto grado de la escuela Punahou School.

Why fue?  Ser is always used to express the ‘passive’ voice – when an action is done to someone rathen than them doing the action personally.  The preterite is used because this happened at a certain point in time and that is what is being stressed.

Now here’s a few random texts found by doing a search for ‘was’ on a great site called Linguee  (a small caveat is that erroneous texts can be included so check the sources).

I didn’t know why I was lining up in front of a center with my mom.

No sabía por qué estaba yo haciendo fila con mi mamá frente al centro.

Why estaba?  Estar for actions, imperfect for current at the time referred to.

She was illiterate until the age of 14, but managed to study with the help of nuns.

Fue analfabeta hasta los 14 años pero logró estudiar gracias un grupo de monjas.

Why fue?   When the rest of the sentence states or alludes to a point in time when the state, situation, action etc being mentioned ended, then you must refer to it in the preterite or it sounds a bit weird.  

The use of the preterite also highlights that she didn’t remain an illiterate person.

A final note …..  we also have the regional differences to content with …

I have read that in Spain your choices are ‘ser bueno’ or ‘estar muy bien’ but that you won’t hear ‘estar bueno’.  I can’t personally vouch for that but have also heard first hand from those living in Spain that this is indeed the case.

La película estuvo buena.  (Latin America)

La película estuvo muy bien.   (Spain)