Learn how to correctly use SER vs. ESTAR in Spanish, in a context of both PRETÉRITO IMPERFECTO (Past Imperfect) and PRETÉRITO INDEFINIDO (Past Simple).
One Spanish student had this question for us:
Is it correct to use “ESTABA” to say “It was an experiment” in Spanish?
This is our answer:
The use of ESTAR in this phrase is NOT correct in Spanish because it involves a mismatch in verb forms. The verb "estaba" is the past tense of the verb "estar," which means "to be" or "to stay".
However, if you are trying to say "It was an experiment" in Spanish, the correct verb to use would be SER, which is also translated as "to be" but is used for more permanent or inherent characteristics. That being said, "It was an experiment" - in Spanish - could be both:
FUE un experimento - Pretérito Indefinido (Past Simple).
ERA un experimento - Pretérito Imperfecto (Past Imperfect).
And this two different phrases have two different meanings. Let’s see why!
Here you have two main grammar topics on stage…
SER vs. ESTAR + the use of the PAST IMPERFECT (Pretérito Imperfecto) vs. the PAST SIMPLE (Pretérito Indefinido) in Spanish.
1. Let’s see how SER and ESTAR behave while using them in the PAST IMPERFECT:
SER: Description of permanent and USUAL characteristics, events, and actions inside a timeframe in the past
Yo ERA una persona muy simpática
I WAS a very nice person (inside a specific timeframe, this was a permanent characteristic)
ESTAR: Description of characteristics that are temporary and can potentially change + Location of people and objects in space, both in the past, for a more or less extensive period of time
El café ESTABA caliente
The coffee WAS hot (in that moment, but this can potentially change).
Yo ESTABA en el parque, cuando de repente…
I WAS in the park, when suddenly… (this is just my location in the past, for a more or less extensive period of time).
2. Let’s see how SER and ESTAR behave while using them in the PAST SIMPLE:
SER: Description of permanent characteristics, events, and actions in the past, inside a timeframe that DOESN’T include the present time
La semana pasada, yo FUI una persona muy simpática
Last week, I WAS a very nice person (“Last week” doesn’t include the present time, in perfect opposition to “this week” that it does, because of today).
ESTAR: Description of characteristics that are temporary and can potentially change + Location of people and objects in space, both in the past, and inside a timeframe that DOESN’T include the present time, with the sense of a specific moment (not a “more or less extensive period of time” like with the imperfect).
Ayer, el café ESTUVO caliente todo el día
Yesterday, the coffee WAS hot all day long (in that specific period of time, that doesn’t include the present time, in perfect opposition to “today” that it does).
Ayer, yo ESTUVE en el parque desde las tres hasta las cuatro de la tarde
Yesterday, I WAS in the park from three to four on the afternoon (this is just my location in the past, for a specific period of time)
That being said, in case you want to push yourself beyond the Imperfect vs Past Simple in Spanish, maybe finding new and powerful resources, plus the opportunity to practice your Spanish by talking in a professionally managed environment, if you want, you can take a look at our Live Conversation Classes (384 Classes available per YEAR — 1 to 6 students per class) 🙂
Complete Spanish Courses — from Zero to HERO in 6 months — can be found through our homepage 🚀
Qué tengas un maravilloso día!
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