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Grammar - Conjugating SER and ESTAR in the Past Tense

This Spanish Medium Review quiz will look at conjugating the ser and estar in the past tense. As you may recall, back in Spanish Easy Review you learned that in Spanish there are two different forms of the verb 'to be'. Those two forms are ser and estar. This is because in Spanish the verb 'to be' is associated with conditions being either temporary or permanent.

You were also given the following helpful hints to assist you in remember where to use each form of the 'to be' Spanish verbs. Those hints were to use the verb ser to tell the :

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  • time and date
  • place of origin
  • occupation
  • nationality
  • religious and/or political affiliation
  • the material something is made of
  • possession
  • relationship of one person to another
  • certain impersonal expressions
  • where an event takes place
  • qualities

You then use the verb estar to express:

  • geographical or physical locations
  • temporary or changing conditions such as the weather, feelings and age
  • many idiomatic expressions
  • progressive tenses

While taking the Spanish Easy Review quizzes you learned how to conjugate each of these 'to be' verbs in the present tense. Now it is time to learn how to conjugate them in the past tense or the pretérito tense as it is said in Spanish.

SER (to be): (irregular in both present and past)

  • Present Tense: (yo) soy; (tú) eres; (él/ella/usted/lo) es; (nosotros/as) somos; (vosotros/as) sois; (ellos/ellas/ustedes/los) son
  • Past Tense: (yo) fui; (tú) fuiste; (él/ella/usted/lo) fue; (nosotros/as) fuimos; (vosotros/as) fuisteis; (ellos/ellas/ustedes/los) fueron

ESTAR (to be): (irregular in both present and past)

  • Present Tense: (yo) estoy; (tú) estás; (él/ella/usted/lo) está; (nosotros/as) estamos; (vosotros/as) estáis; (ellos/ellas/ustedes/los) están
  • Past Tense: (yo) estuve; (tú) estuviste; (él/ella/usted/lo) estuvo; (nosotros/as) estuvimos; (vosotros/as) estuvisteis; (ellos/ellas/ustedes/los) estuvieron

SER or IR In The Past Tense

Did you notice something very tricky and yet familiar about the past tense forms of ser? They are exactly the same conjugation words as the past tense form for the verb ir (to go). Now that ought to drive you a little crazy.

The only way to tell the difference between these two verbs when using the past tense is using the entire context of a conversation in which the sentence in which they fall in may be in. For example: 'fui en escuela' means 'I was in school' while 'fui a escuela' could mean either 'I was at school' or 'I went to school.' Some people find that this makes conjugating these two verbs easier while others find it very confusing. Again, practice makes perfect so in time whether you are saying 'I went' or 'I was' will become second nature to you, especially when in the context of a conversation.

Now, as you already have an understanding that there is a difference between temporary conditions and permanent conditions, it is time to move on to the quiz section. There are ten sentences with a 'to be' verb that has been underlined. From the answers provided, see if you can locate the correct Spanish form that matches the all capitalized verb.

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  1. Janet WAS sleeping at her friend’s house.
    As Janet was sleeping at a friend’s house it shows that this is a temporary condition. Therefore, the verb estar should be used. Each answer has used this verb. The next thing to determine is which pronoun can be used to replace Janet. That would be the pronoun she. The third answer means 'I was'. It is not the correct pronoun. The second and last answers are both misspelled. The first answer means 'she was' and is the correct conjugated form and pronoun that is needed here.
  2. Charlie, Michael and Donald WERE up in the mountains.
    As Charlie, Michael and Donald were up in the mountains, the sentence is showing that this is a temporary condition. Therefore, the verb estar should be used. Each answer has used this verb. The next thing to determine is which pronoun can be used to replace Charlie, Michael and Donald. That would be the pronoun they. The first answer means 'we were' so that is not the proper pronoun. The last answer means 'you were' (familiar plural) so it, too, is not the proper pronoun form of the conjugated verb. The third answer is misspelled. The second answer means 'they were' and it is properly conjugated with the correct pronoun.
  3. She WAS his sister.
    As we are talking about a sister here, the condition is permanent and the verb ser needs to be used. The pronoun has already been provided. The first answer shows the present tense meaning for 'I am' so it is not the correct conjugated tense. The second and last answers are both misspellings so neither is correct. The third answer means 'she was' and it is the correct conjugated form.
  4. The Statute of Liberty WAS in New York Harbor.
    In this sentence it is referring to a geographical location. When describing a geographical location the verb estar should be used. This now means that the second and third answers can be eliminated. Next you need to decide which pronoun would replace the Statute of Liberty. That would be the direct object pronoun it (lo). The first answer means 'I was'. It is not the proper pronoun conjugated form. The last answer means 'it was' and it is the correct conjugated form and pronoun.
  5. We WERE brunettes when we were young.
    In this sentence it is referring to a condition that took place over a long period of time so it would be considered a permanent condition. Therefore, the verb ser needs to be used. This then tells you that the second and third answers can be eliminated. The first answer means 'they were'. That is not the correct pronoun form that is needed. The last answer means 'we were'. It is the correct conjugated form and pronoun.
  6. You WERE an American. ('You' refers to the singular familiar.)
    This sentence is talking about a nationality which is a permanent condition. Therefore, the verb ser needs to be used. You have already been provided with the pronoun you. The first answer is a misspelled word. The second answer means 'you are' which is in the present tense so it is not correct here. The last answer means 'you were' (plural familiar) so it is not the proper pronoun. The third answer means 'you were' (singular familiar) and it is the proper conjugated form and pronoun.
  7. I WAS at the movie theater.
    Will you always be at the movie theater? Most likely not so your location would be a temporary condition. Therefore, the verb estar is needed with this sentence. This now means that the first and last answers can be eliminated. You have already been provided with the pronoun. The third answer means 'he was'. It is not the proper pronoun form. The second answer means 'I was' and it is the proper conjugated form and pronoun.
  8. You WERE hungry. ('You' refers to the plural familiar.)
    Would you always be hungry? Chance are that would be a no response. Being hungry is temporary so you would use the verb estar. The pronoun has already been provided. The second, third and last answers are each misspelled so neither of those are correct. The first answer means 'you were' (plural familiar) and is the correct conjugated form, spelling and pronoun.
  9. They WERE cousins.
    As they will always be cousins the condition is permanent. The verb ser then needs to be used which will eliminate the first and third answers. The pronoun has already been provided for you. The last answer is a misspelled word. The second answer means 'they were' and it is the correct conjugated form and pronoun.
  10. The car WAS blue.
    This sentence is speaking about the characteristic of the car which is blue. This means it is a permanent condition so the verb ser needs to be used. The second and last answers can be eliminated as they show the verb estar. Now you need to determine the pronoun for the car. It is the direct object pronoun it (lo). The first answer means 'you were' (singular familiar) which is not the pronoun form needed here. The third answer means 'it was'. This is the correct conjugated form and pronoun.

Author: Christine G. Broome

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