One of the most difficult aspects of Spanish for an English speaker is when to use ser and estar, and it’s even more challenging when a participle is attached. The following two phrases translate into English as “The house was built,” but there is a difference between them:
- La casa fue construida
- La casa estaba construida
Let’s take a closer look at these two sentences. The first one, with ser, is in the passive and implies that someone or something carried out the action. You could just as well say “La casa fue construida por ellos” (The house was built by them– yes, it’s more awkward in English, I know). This is the same as saying “Ellos construyeron la casa” (They built the house) using the active voice. When you use ser with a participle, you imply that something is or was being done by an agent, even when you don’t specify who or what that agent is. In other words, you can say “La casa fue construida” and it’s understood that someone built it. The focus is on the action of the house being built, and not so much on the state or condition of the house. It is optional, but always possible, to add the phrase “por + algo / alguien” and thus specify who or what did the building.
In the second phrase, the focus is on the condition or state of the house. Think of “construida” in this context as an adjective, a description of what the house was like. In such a phrase, you could follow up and say something like, “La casa estaba construida sobre una roca” (The house was built on a rock). In this example, you’re describing the location of the house and not referring to the process of its actual construction. You cannot say “La casa estaba constuida por ellos”… once you refer to the agent carrying out the action, you need ser.
Here are a few more examples:
- La crisis fue resuelta (The crisis was resolved BY SOMEBODY / SOMETHING – ACTION)
- La crisis estaba resulta (The crisis was resolved – the state of affairs – DESCRIPTION)
- La ventana fue cerrada (The implication is that someone closed the window – ACTION)
- La ventana estaba cerrada (The window was closed – this is how we found it – DESCRIPTION)
- Los tacos son preparados (The tacos are prepared by someone – ACTION)
- Los tacos están preparados (The condition of the tacos – they are ready to be eaten – DESCRIPTION)
The subtle differences between these expressions are simply not conveyed by their English translations. Remember, if you’re implying that someone or something carried out the action, use ser. If you are describing the condition of things, use estar.
Feel free to leave your comments and thoughts and let me know if this makes sense. ¡Hasta la próxima!