Conjugating Ser and Estar

You already know how to conjugate regular verbs, but unfortunately not all Spanish verbs are regular. You have already learned the irregular present- tense verb forms for ser and estar. Now let's see how these verbs conjugate in preterite, imperfect, present perfect, and future tense (remember, you can use the future-tense base of the irregular verb to conjugate it in the conditional tense).

The Preterite Tense

In the preterite, ser is used on “permanent” characteristics that nevertheless had a definite ending point—think of them as life-altering changes. Estar‘s focus on the situational goes along better in describing a simple past that is at odds with the present. After all, a lot of things do in fact change, particularly situations. The action is still rooted in the past and cut off from the present, but the changes that may occur in the movement toward the present are more easily assigned to a discrete point in time, rather than a continuum as is the case with the imperfect tense.

Fui bajo. I was short. (But now I'm tall.)
Ayer estuve cansado. I was tired yesterday. (But I'm not tired anymore.)

Try to memorize the preterite conjugation forms of ser and estar.

Ser and Estar in the Preterite Tense

Pronoun(s) Ser Estar
yo fui estuve
fuiste estuviste
él, ella, usted fue estuvo
nosotros, nosotras fuimos estuvimos
vosotros, vosotras fuisteis estuvisteis
ellos, ellas, ustedes fueron estuvieron

Imperfect Tense

Estar, in the imperfect, describes continuous, habitual, or customary acts of “being” that coincide with the English “I used to be” or “I was (being).” For example:

Estaba en el jardín cuando llegó el sol. I was in the garden when the sun came.

The preterite and the imperfect can actually coincide. That is, the preterite can be contained within a time frame established by the copreterite as in:

Ayer mientras estaba en el trabajo, hablé con Luisa. Yesterday while I was at work, I talked to Luisa.

With regard to ser, the imperfect tense may describe habitual or customary acts of “being” that coincide with the English “used to be” during a fairly vague period of time. It is often employed to complete the phrase “When I was …”

Cuando era niño, era travieso. When I was a boy, I was mischievous.
Cuando era adolescente, era buena estudiante. When she was an adolescent, she was a good student.

Notice that these time frames are common to everyone. You've also been a child and an adolescent at one time or another. Because the imperfect makes no reference to something having ended, it is often used to render descriptions of personal characteristics by relying on the preposition de. You can say:

De joven, era audaz. When I was young, I was an audacious kid.
De soltera, era demasiado seria. When I was single, I was too serious.
De casado, era tranquilo. When I was married, I was calm.

For conjugated forms of ser and estar in the imperfect, refer to the following table.

Ser and Estar in the Imperfect Tense

Pronoun(s) Ser Estar
yo era estaba
eras estabas
él, ella, usted era estaba
nosotros, nosotras éramos estábamos
vosotros, vosotras erais estabais
ellos, ellas, ustedes eran estaban

The Present Perfect Tense

In this tense, ser and estar both translate to “have been.” As you might remember, the conjugations are constructed by using a form of the auxiliary verb haber (“to have”) with the past participle (or –do) form of the primary verb: in this case, sido and estado. For example:

Durante mi vida he sido estudiante, marinero, y vendedor de zapatos. During my life I've been a student, sailor, and shoe seller.
He estado aquí dos horas. I have been here for two hours.
He estado con gripe desde ayer. I have had a cold since yesterday.

The Future Tense

Despite offering the present tense to describe future events, Spanish also has its own strictly future-focused tense.

La semana próxima estaré en Buenos Aires. Next week I will be in Buenos Aires.
Qué será, será. What will be, will be.

The following table contains the conjugations of ser and estar in the future tense.

Ser and Estar in the Future Tense

Pronoun(s) Ser Estar
yo seré estaré
serás estarás
él, ella, usted será estará
nosotros, nosotras seremos estaremos
vosotros, vosotras seréis estaréis
ellos, ellas, ustedes serán estarán

A Little Time Travel

Fill in the correct conjugation form based on the context of the sentence. Don't forget to conjugate the verb both according to tense and its subject. To check your answers, see here.

1._____________El señor Ochoa y su esposa (hablar) con su vecino a menudo. (imperfect tense)

2._____________En dos días, yo (volver) a España. (future tense)

3._____________Si hiciera frío, tú te (cubrir) con la manta. (conditional tense)

4._____________Cuando éramos pequeños, (vivir) en un apartamento y no en una casa, como ahora. (imperfect tense)

5._____________Marina (contestar) que nunca volvería a aquel lugar. (preterite tense)

6._____________Si él abriera la puerta, tú (entrar) adentro. (conditional tense)

7._____________Yo (pasar) tres años en Nueva York. (preterite tense)

8._____________Nosotros nunca (tener) la oportunidad de hablar con él. (present perfect)

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