Question about Spanish ser vs estar

So I (generally speaking) think I understand the difference between ser and estar but am having trouble understanding the when to use the preterite past tense with each - maybe that means I don’t really understand the differences, I don’t know.

On, they have these two sentences, the first using ser and the second using estar:

Nunca fui tan feliz de oír nada en mi vida… ( I was never so glad to hear anything in my life.) (Here are more examples of ser / fui.)

Nunca estuve tan seguro de nada en mi vida. (I was never so sure of anything in my life.) (Here are more examples of estar / fui.)

To me, those sentences are nearly identical in English, but in Spanish a different verb is used. Why is the first “ser” and the second “estar”?

The second is more of a temporary state of mind. The first was a more definite state of being. Subtle, for sure, and could be driven by surrounding context.

Estar generally is for more temporary things, conditions, or states of being. Ser is more for definite or absolute.

Él era aleman. (He was German = description of a definite state of being. Presumably he will not stop being German.)
Yo estuve enamorado. (I was in love. = temporary state. Hey, love don’t always last! :open_mouth:)

That’s how I’ve heard that distinction defined, but that leaves me wondering why estar is used in referring to something dead. I once said “Es muerte” in front of a native speaker and was promptly politely corrected to “Esta muerte”.

Iggy, that’s helpful - thank you. I agree that the difference is quite subtle.

Your response brings up another question I had which I intended to mention in my original post but forgot.

In the first sentence, using ser, SpanishDict uses the preterite “fui” instead of the imperfect “era.” So maybe that’s more my question - in your example, you used “era.” When do you use “fui” (for ser) vs “era” (for ser)?

Would saying “El fue aleman.” be incorrect? If so, why - why is the imperfect the tense here?

So my question here is about the difference between the preterite and imperfect with ser.

Thank you!

I’m not fluent, and I’m not sure I can answer your specific question. But one thing I’ve come to understand is that the ser/estar distinction doesn’t really follow the rules taught in Spanish classes. Those rules may be helpful for getting it right most of the time, but if you want to graduate to getting it right all the time, you just have to memorize which one is used in each case. Asking why one or the other is used in a particular instance is a bit like asking why bad things happen to good people.

An interesting parallel to this occurs with the English verbs “to do” and “to make.” Many monolingual English speakers have never contemplated how that these two verbs are both covered quite handily by the Spanish “hacer,” and the way we divvy them up is a source of much frustration for ESL students. As with ser/estar, teachers give rules of thumb, like that “make” usually involves a physical object being produced while “do” is used for most kinds of work. And then they have to patiently correct those students who want to “do” the bed or a phone call and “make” a book report.

You’ll also find examples of rules being bent for effect just like in English. McDonald’s was heavy into their “I’m loving it” slogan while I was studying to be an ESL teacher, and I remember having a hell of a time trying to explain to myself in grammatical terms what it meant to use a stative verb in the present progressive like that.

As I understand it, preterite would be used for a discrete event that started and completed in the past. A verb to describe a concrete characteristic that is ongoing such as nationality should use the imperfect instead.

So when describing a nationality, gender, specific place of birth, and other such immutable traits the use of the imperfect is preferred. If describing a trait that applied to a certain discrete time period in the past the use of the preterite might be preferred. But as with most things in Spanish you may find some regional variations that I am not familiar with. (My Spanish is from the paisa region of the Eje Cafetero in west central Colombia.)

El líder era una mujer. The leader was a woman. An ongoing trait so imperfect is used.
Su cabello fue rubio en colegio. Her hair was blonde in high school. The implication is that her hair was blonde for a defined period of time, but is no longer. Since it was a discrete event that started and ended in the past the preterite is used.

Thanks for your in-depth replies. They’re both quite helpful and answer my questions perfectly (now I just have to internalize the general concepts, while understanding, as Esprise_Me says, that learning the “rules” doesn’t quite cut it).

When I was posting on untranslatable words in Spanish,German & English in a blog I have since mostly abandoned this entry about ser y estar was easily among the most commented, even by Spaniards. Perhaps it helps, I’m ready to answer concrete questions if you have any.
Ser feliz is the normal way to say it, and estar feliz sounds wrong, although it is a transient state. Strange, but I am sure all Spanish native speakers will agree that is the correct way to say it. On the other hand we say estar satisfecho and not ser satisfecho. So it seems feliz has a ring of immutability in our ears that satisfecho or contento does not have.
Estar seguro means to be sure (of something). Ser (una persona) segura means you do the things you do in a safe manner, for instance ser un conductor seguro means you drive safely.
Fue alemán means he was German, but this is now over. He has another nationality now. Sounds artificial, but can happen. Era alemán is the more normal way to say that he was German, stating implicitly that he most probably still is. This will be used to tell a story that happened in the past and is now over, thus the past tense even if the person concerned may still be alive and still be a German, but the story is over.

To add another correction, the correct way to say it would be esta muerto or esta muerta. Muerte = death
Muerto / muerta = dead

ETA. Assuming the deceased was not in fact the grim reaper. If so, then you would have been correct.

OK, so I misremembered that :). Thanks.

I still find it odd to use “estar” for what is presumably a permanent state of affairs.

I assume it’s so that it matches with alive. The same way that someone esta vivo when they are alive, after they die estan muerto.

On the other hand, if someone “es vivo” it means he’s lively or alert (as a permanent characteristic of his personality.)