‘Era’ vs ‘estaba’

A Mexican friend once told me about a hike he’d been on in Oaxaca.

He said that a river he’d crossed “estaba bien profundo.” – “was very deep.”.

Being a know-it-all, I wanted to correct his use of ‘estaba’. Surely he should have said ‘era’?

After all, he was describing an essential quality of the river. I didn’t correct him, of course. But I asked him later why he’d used ‘estaba’ instead of ‘era’. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sólo que me sorprendió.” – “It just surprised me.

Hmm, I thought, maybe the fact that it “surprised” him has something to do with it …

Yes, there might be something there. I dashed home, turned on my laptop and got to work.

Quick answer – both ‘era’ and ‘estaba’ translate to ‘was’ or ‘were’ in English. ‘Era’ is used to state “facts” about how people or things were in the past, while ‘estaba’ is generally used to describe moods, states and the locations of people and things.


Three key things to know before venturing into the jungle –

1. ‘Era’ and ‘estaba’ are the past tense conjugations of ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ respectively.

2. And not just any past tense, we’re talking the “imperfect tense”. I like to call it the “long past” because it’s used to describe the past over an extended period of time.

3. ‘Era’ and ‘estaba’ conjugate with ‘yo’ (I), ‘él’ (he), ‘ella’ (she) and ‘usted’ (formal you) … no ‘it’ in Spanish, I’m afraid.

Now that that’s out the way, let’s tighten our bootstraps and head out into that jungle.

Ser’ vs ‘estar

As we’re dealing with two conjugations of ‘ser’ and ‘estar’, it’s important to understand exactly how these two verbs work! 

We use ‘ser’ when talking about the immutable qualities of something or someone.

I’m British. = Soy británico.

That aspect of who I am (i.e., being British) cannot change, so I use ‘ser’ instead of ‘estar’.

We use ‘estar’ to talk about temporary moods, states (again temporary!) and locations.

She was angry with me. = Ella estaba enojada conmigo.

But not for long, thankfully! Being angry is something temporary, a state / mood, and so it’s expressed with ‘estar’ instead of ‘ser’.

Erika’s note – it might be handy for our readers to check out our video on the differences between ser’ and ‘estar as a complement to this article.

When to use ‘era

Since ‘era’ is an imperfect tense conjugation of ‘ser’, we use it to describe the essential qualities of something or someone in the long past (i.e., over an extended period of time).

This could be when someone talks about their childhood, or when they were at university, or the history of a place long, long ago. 

Here are some examples –

La casa en la que crecí era grande comparada con los estándares de hoy en día. ¡Tenía cuatro recamaras!

The house I grew up in was big compared to today’s standards. It had four bedrooms!

Cuando Augusto se convirtió en emperador en 27 AC, el imperio romano era vasto.

When Augustus became Emperor in 27 BC, the Roman empire was vast.

Mi abuela era un pan de dios. Siempre estaba* ahí cuando la necesitaba.

My grandmother was an angel. She was always there when I needed her.

Nothing lasts forever, BUT as you can see from the above examples, ‘era’ describes something long-lasting; that is to say, qualities of a person / thing that do not change easily (unlike our moods!).

*Oops, there’s our friend ‘estaba’ – we’ll dig a bit deeper into this example a little later.

When to use ‘estaba

Estaba’ is a conjugation of ‘estar’ in the imperfect tense, therefore we use it to describe the mood or location (i.e., the temporary state) of someone or something in the so-called long past. 

Some examples for you to sink your eyes into –

Ay perdón, estaba de malas ese día. Por eso te hablé feo.

Ah sorry, I was in a bad mood that day. That’s why I was rude to you.

Según mi hermana, el hotel estaba por acá, pero no lo veo.

My sister said that the hotel was around here, but I can’t see it.

Mi abuela era un pan de dios. Siempre estaba* ahí cuando la necesitaba.

My grandmother was an angel. She was always there when I needed her.

Here’s that example again. Get those magnifying glasses out and let’s look at the two side by side …

Era’ is used to describe the grandmother as a person (an essential quality!) and ‘estaba’ to talk about where she was (i.e., location in the long past).

Additionally, we also use ‘estaba’ to form past continuous sentences, like “I was thinking …” or “She was telling me …”

In English we’d say was + verb (-ing) and, well, the structure is pretty much the same in Spanish:

estaba + verbo (-iendo / -ando)

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples –

Estaba lloviendo, por eso no salí.

It was raining, that’s why I stayed in.

El profesor estaba hablando por hablar, entonces me quedé dormido.

The professor was droning on and on, so I fell asleep.

Troublesome areas

Time to revisit that time I was confused about my friend’s description of a river in Oaxaca.

He said the river “estaba muy profundo”. But why?

Well, the RAE (Real Academia Espanola) says that ‘estar’ describes a situation, condition or “modo actual de ser”.

The last bit interested me: “modo actual de ser” – “current way of being”. Why (on earth!) is the RAE using ‘ser’ in its explanation of one of the many uses of ‘estar’?

But then I remembered that Spanish-speakers often use ‘estar’ to describe things when you’d expect them to use ser.

I also remembered that we’ve already made an epic video on the differences between ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ and that we explained IN FULL how ‘estar’ can be used colloquially to express our personal, subjective opinion.

Está delicioso.

It’s delicious.

Está cañón la lluvia.

It’s raining pretty darn heavily.

Esta manzana está bien chiquita.

This apple is really small.

So why can’t we change these babies to the past?   

Estaba delicioso.

It was delicious.

Estaba cañón la lluvia.

It was raining pretty darn heavily.

Ese pueblo estaba bien chiquito.

That town was very small.

Oh wait, we can!

It all clicked into place: my friend was describing the river from his perspective; it was his personal, subjective reaction to the depth of the river.

So, to say ‘era bien profundo’ would be a statement of fact, perhaps you’d be describing a really, really deep river like the Amazon, but it wouldn’t have the same personal ring to it that ‘estaba bien profundo’ has.

Final thoughts

So, there you have it … undo those bootstraps and set those feet free.  

Remember: ‘era’ is for statements of facts about the way things were in the past and ‘estaba’ for feelings and locations in the long past (and for continuous actions in the past!).

Oh, and ‘estaba’ is also used colloquially to describe how the speaker PERCEIVES something (i.e., his / her personal, subjective reaction); it also adds a pinch of Latin passion to the description!

Go ahead, tell your friends, you read an article today.

¡Estaba bien interesante!

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

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