We have now covered many Past Simple verbs, including the most common irregular ones, namely dar, hacer, ir, ser, decir and estar.  Most of these are verbs with meanings that are fairly easy to grasp in the Past Tense.  Perhaps the most tricky ones are ser and estar, with the usual confusions about which one is which, but hopefully my explanations have helped to clear this up.  With those two verbs in any tense I like to stick to a basic rule of thumb which I find very useful, which is that  estar is used to express ‘how and where’ and ser is used for ‘who, what and when’.  I know this doesn’t fit every single case, but it does go a long way to clearing up the basic difference between the two.

There is another difficulty in Spanish for non-native speakers, in addition to the ser and estar issue. That is the correct use of the Past Simple Tense in contrast with the other tense we looked at a while ago, which we called the Past Continuous Tense. (Remember?  Things like vivíaI lived/I used to live).   I’m sure I have mentioned before that the main problem here, especially for us native English speakers, is that there are more Past Tenses in Spanish than in English.  This means that there are finer points of difference between these two Past Tenses which tend to escape us because they do not exist in our language.

I’m actually opening up a large can of worms which cannot be dealt with very easily in a monthly article. However, as I am not one to be faint-hearted when it comes to explaining grammar, I will use one particular verb as an example of what I’m talking about and then leave it at that.  The chosen verb is Tener, which of course means ‘to have’.  

First of all here it is in the Past Simple Tense and it’s quite a nasty little irregular verb, as you can see:

  • tuve tuvimos
  • tuviste tuvisteis
  • tuvo tuvieron

This verb is commonly used in the Past Continuous Tense, which makes sense as it describes possession: something we do not usually associate with a single or completed event.  Possession is a state of being and therefore a description.  For example: Cuándo yo tenía 10 años mi familia tenía una casa grande. (When I was 10 my family had a large house.)

When can we use this verb Tener in the Past Simple Tense, to talk about one-off finished events?  Well, here are two examples which should help:

Tuve un accidente de tráfico el año pasado.

I had a traffic accident last year.

El pintor nació en 1900 y tuvo tres hijos con su primera mujer.

The painter was born in 1900 and had three children with his first wife.

In the first sentence we are referring to a completed event rather than a description and in the second sentence we are focusing on an historical fact, or sequence of biographical details.  I think I’ve got about as complicated as I can on this subject, so next month I will try and lighten it up a bit.  See you then.