Using the verb ser in El Imperfecto vs. El Indefinido

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

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

Manuel era un buen doctor.
Manuel was a good doctor. (We don't want to emphasise when he started and finished being a good doctor.)

El viaje era muy interesante.
The trip was very interesting. (We are describing something where the timeframe is not relevant.)

In the examples above, we are talking about background information of a situation or characteristic where the timeframe is unknown or unimportant. When it started and when it ended is irrelevant.

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

Manuel fue un buen doctor.
Manuel was a good doctor. (We emphasise that Manuel was a good doctor for a limited time in the past.)

El viaje fue muy interesante.
The trip was very interesting. (We are describing a situation where the beginning and end are defined.)

In the examples above, we are talking about situations or characteristics with a definite timeframe in the speaker's mind. Despite not seeing any evident start or ending of the action, we consider the time when it happened as a completed action.

If we compare these other two sentences:

1. Paloma era la profesora de mi hija. 

2. Paloma fue la profesora de mi hija. 

In example 1, we are not interested in conveying for how long she was my daughter's teacher. We are simply saying that Paloma was her teacher in the past.

In example 2, however we convey the idea of Paloma being my daughter's teacher in the past within a limited timeframe. We see it as a completed action.

Note that while "fue" is generally translated into "was" in English, "era" can be translated into "was", "used to be" and "would be".

Eran siempre sobre las 6 cuando mi padre volvía a casa.
It would always be about 6 o'clock when my dad came home.
It used to be always about 6 o'clock when my dad came home.
It was always about 6 o'clock when my dad came home.

Learn more about these related Spanish grammar topics

Examples and resources

El viaje fue muy interesante.
The trip was very interesting. (We are describing a situation where the beginning and end are defined.)


Manuel fue un buen doctor.
Manuel was a good doctor. (We emphasise that Manuel was a good doctor for a limited time in the past.)


Manuel era un buen doctor.
Manuel was a good doctor. (We don't want to emphasise when he started and finished being a good doctor.)


El viaje era muy interesante.
The trip was very interesting. (We are describing something where the timeframe is not relevant.)


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