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Using Spanish verb estar in the imperfect vs the preterite

The verb estar changes its meaning depending on whether it is used in El Pretérito Imperfecto or in El Pretérito Indefinido.

Using one or another depends on whether the speaker sees action in terms of having a defined end (indefinido) or not (imperfecto). 

Estar in El Pretérito Imperfecto

Read and listen to these examples with verb estar in El Pretérito Imperfecto:

Martina estaba deprimida.Martina was depressed. (We are not sure or it doesn't matter how Martina is feeling now.)

Los cuadros estaban en el museo.The paintings were in the museum. (We are describing a situation where the timeframe is not relevant.)

In the examples above, we are talking about an action/situation in the past but we do not consider the beginning or the end to be relevant. The use of the imperfect makes us think that that is what was happening then but there is no indication on whether that is still the case or not. We don't know if the paintings are still in the museum, or if Martina is still depressed. The focus is not on the limitation, completion or end of those actions. 

Estar in El Pretérito Indefinido

Now, read and listen to these examples with verb estar in El Pretérito Indefinido:

Martina estuvo deprimida.Martina was depressed. (We know Martina is no longer depressed; she is feeling better now.)

Los cuadros estuvieron en el museo.The paintings were in the museum. (We are describing a situation where the condition is no longer true, we know the situation is different now)

In the examples above, we are talking about an action in the past but using the preterite suggests that the situation or action is no longer current.

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Examples and resources

Martina estaba deprimida.Martina was depressed. (We are not sure or it doesn't matter how Martina is feeling now.)
Martina estuvo deprimida.Martina was depressed. (We know Martina is no longer depressed; she is feeling better now.)
Los cuadros estaban en el museo.The paintings were in the museum. (We are describing a situation where the timeframe is not relevant.)
Los cuadros estuvieron en el museo.The paintings were in the museum. (We are describing a situation where the condition is no longer true, we know the situation is different now)
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