Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish

Preterite tense more common when referring to events

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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 clase? (How was your class? The preterite tense is preferred here.)
  • ¿Cómo era tu juventud? (How was your childhood? The imperfect tense is preferred.)
  • ¿Cómo fue el partido? (How was the game? 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?)
    • Si ayer era malo ... (If yesterday was bad ...)
    • ¿Quien dijo que la marihuana era malo? (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 malo. (Your love was bad.)
    • El paisaje de amenazas digitales fue malo durante el año pasado. (The cyberthreat scene was bad during the past year.)
    • Esos ​negocios fueron malos para Grecia. (Those businesses were bad for Greece.)
    • Al final "Chiquidrácula" no fue malo para Panamá. (In the end "Chiquidrácula" wasn't bad for Panama.)

    These sentences also refer to the nature of 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 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 goleador brasileño fue detenido con marihuana y crack. (The Brazilian goalie was arrested with marijuana and crack.)
    • Los animales fueron acostumbrados al ambiente de laboratorio. (The animals were accustomed to the laboratory environment.) 

    Unfortunately, this guide is far from foolproof.

    "Ayer era malo" and "ayer fue malo" can both be used for "yesterday was bad." And even though the postponing of a concert might be seen as something that requires the preterite, you'll sometimes here statements such as "el concierto era pospuesto." 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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    Erichsen, Gerald. "Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 22, 2018, thoughtco.com/fue-or-era-3079735. Erichsen, Gerald. (2018, April 22). Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/fue-or-era-3079735 Erichsen, Gerald. "Uses for 'Fue' or 'Era' in Spanish." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/fue-or-era-3079735 (accessed May 24, 2018).