Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish

Preterite tense more common when referring to events

Man Writing in Spanish

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Spanish has at least two common ways of translating simple phrases such as "it was" using a form of the verb serera and fue — but it isn't always easy to know which one to use.

Uses for the Two Past Tenses of Ser Overlap

The two forms represent different past tenses, era for the imperfect and fue for the preterite. Corresponding forms also exist for subjects other than "it" — you could say either eramos and fuimos for "we were," for example.

Conceptually, the differences between the two past tenses are fairly easy to grasp: the imperfect tense generally refers to actions that occurred numerous times and/or didn't have a definite end, while the preterite typically refers to actions that took place or at least ended at a definite time.

However, for the English speaker, applying those concepts to the past tenses of ser can be problematic, partly because it seems in practice that native speakers commonly use the imperfect for states of being that had a definite end, while an application of the rule above might suggest use of the preterite. Similarly, it would seem logical to say, for example, "era mi hija" for "she was my daughter," because presumably once a daughter always a daughter, but in fact "fue mi hija" also is heard.

Similarly, it isn't hard to come up with sentences structured and translated similarly where one of the verb forms is preferred over the other. Here are two such pairs:

  • ¿Cómo fue tu infancia? (How was your childhood? The preterite tense is preferred here.)
  • ¿Cómo era tu vida en el pueblo? (How was your life in the village? The imperfect tense is preferred.)
  • ¿Cómo fue el accidente? (How was the accident?/How did the accident happen? Preterite.)
  • ¿Cómo era la ciudad antes? (How was the city before? Imperfect.)

Which Tense of Ser Is Preferred?

It is difficult to formulate an exact rule for which tense of ser is preferred. But it may be helpful to think of the imperfect (such as era and eran) being used primarily when talking about inherent characteristics and to think of the preterite (such as fue and fueron) to refer to events in the broadest sense of the word.

You can see this distinction in this recent list of top Web search results for era:

  • ¿Einstein era malo en matemáticas? (Was Einstein bad in mathematics?)
  • ¿Quien dijo que la marihuana era mala? (Who said marijuana was bad?)
  • No sabía que yo era capaz. (I didn't know I was capable.)
  • ¿Era malo Hitler en realidad? (Was Hitler actually bad?)

In all these sentences, it might be said that era is used to refer to the basic nature of persons or things, even if they had a definite end. Note the differences from the following:

  • El semestre pasado fue malo. (The past semester was bad.)
  • Tu amor fue cruel. (Your love was cruel.)
  • El paisaje de amenazas digitales fue problemático durante el año pasado. (The cyberthreat scene was problematic during the past year.)
  • Esos ​negocios fueron malos para Grecia. (Those businesses were bad for Greece.)
  • Al final "Chiquidrácula" no fue terrible para Panamá. (In the end "Chiquidrácula" wasn't terrible for Panama.)

These sentences also refer to the nature of things, but the things can all be thought of as a type of event. The love of the second sentence and the businesses in the fourth were decidedly temporary, for example, and the other sentence subjects can be thought of as events in a more traditional sense.

The use of the preterite also is more common when it is followed by a past participle:

  • El concierto fue pospuesto. (The concert was postponed.)
  • El portero brasileño fue detenido con marihuana y crack. (The Brazilian goalie was arrested with marijuana and crack.)
  • Los animales fueron acostumbrados al ambiente del laboratorio. (The animals were accustomed to the laboratory environment.) 

Unfortunately, this guide is far from foolproof. Also, native speakers seem to show little preference between "era difícil de explicar" and "fue difícil de explicar," both of which translate to "It was difficult to explain." Ultimately, as you learn Spanish and hear it used by native speakers, you'll get a clearer idea of which verb form sounds more natural.

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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).