Spanish past particle construction

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Spanish past particle construction

Postby mjfleck2000 » Mon Mar 20, 2017 4:53 pm

Hello fellow Spanish language learners....
I am having difficulty, at times, selecting the correct verb in the compound construction of ser + past participle and estar + past participle. The basic gramatical guide is that ser + pp indicates that an action was completed and estar + pp indicates the result of an action that was completed…. okey-dokey. That is not entirely clear.

I was reading a news article that said “ el hombre fue detenido”. Hmmm… I thought, why isn’t that “el hombre está detenido”. Let’s see… fue detenido is a passive construction regarding an occurrence in the past… okay, that makes sense… but , but, but… why not “ el hombre estuvo detenido”. Certainly they are not saying that the state of being detained is a inherent characteristic of the man. But, then again, my new sentence is not a passive construction.

I remember using the sentence “ la ventana está abierta” when I was in Panamá. I went to google translate and typed in “The window is open” -> “La ventana está abierta”. Okay.
I then typed in “The window is opened by John” -> La ventana está abierta por Juan”… yep, me gusta.

Now, if I change the verb to the past tense, I get a different construction. “The window WAS opened by John” -> “La ventana FUE abierta por Juan”.

As you can see, I am confused by the differences between the two constructions of ser + pp versus estar + pp. I have studied these constructions but I would appreciate some help here. I especially would like the point of view of other native English speakers who know the challenge I am having and have figured out some explanation that guides me to select the correct usage.
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby aledda » Mon Mar 20, 2017 8:57 pm

Not a native English speaker, but maybe I can help.

ser + past participle is used as the passive voice in English (something/someone is/was/will be/etc something by someone)

“ el hombre fue detenido”

In this case, the "someone" is not stated, but in context you know the "someone" is "the police"
The man was arrested (by the police)

I remember using the sentence “ la ventana está abierta” when I was in Panamá. I went to google translate and typed in “The window is open” -> “La ventana está abierta”. Okay.
I then typed in “The window is opened by John” -> La ventana está abierta por Juan”… yep, me gusta.

Now, if I change the verb to the past tense, I get a different construction. “The window WAS opened by John” -> “La ventana FUE abierta por Juan”.

Sometimes Google doesn't give an accurate translation, because if you are focusing in the action of opening the window I would say that “The window IS opened by John” in Spanish is "La ventana ES abierta por Juan/John", the same way “The window WAS opened by John” -> “La ventana FUE abierta por Juan”.

estar + past participle describes the result of an action
“The window is open” -> “La ventana está abierta”.

I short: when you use "ser" the focus is on the action, while "estar" focus on the result.
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby mjfleck2000 » Tue Mar 21, 2017 2:28 am

aledda wrote:Not a native English speaker, but maybe I can help.


Thank you for your reply. I was asking for a native English speaker only because I thought they might understand why this giving me a problem. I appreciate all assistance.


aledda wrote:I short: when you use "ser" the focus is on the action, while "estar" focus on the result.


I thought about what you wrote here and tried to express the same idea in my own words. So...
using ser: "es abierta" we are emphasizing the "event" that took place.
using estar: "está abierta" we are emphasizing that the window was closed but its condition was changed and it is now open.

If my understanding is correct ser focused on what happened and estar focused on what changed. Is this closer to the idea or "feeling" you have when using the two different verbs?
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby aledda » Tue Mar 21, 2017 11:43 am

If my understanding is correct ser focused on what happened and estar focused on what changed. Is this closer to the idea or "feeling" you have when using the two different verbs?

Yes, I don't know how the actual "grammar rule" explains it, but when we use those verbs the idea is similar to what you wrote.

---Edit---
I edited the post to add these examples:
"El hombre fue detenido (por la policía)." <- what happened (The police did something to him)
"El hombre está detenido." <- what changed (He was free before and now he is arrested).
"El hombre estuvo detenido." <- what changed (During a period of time in the past, the state of the man changed: he was arrested. Now he is probably free.)
------

As you said, natives speak their own language by "feeling" or by "what sounds right/nice". I didn't pay attention to things like this (the difference between ser and estar) until I started learning/studying English (my first foreign language), and I was totally confused: "why do you use only one verb to express two different things?". At that moment I started to pay attention to when and why we use things a certain way in Spanish. However, there are things that even I find confusing :lol:

Thank you for your reply. I was asking for a native English speaker only because I thought they might understand why this giving me a problem. I appreciate all assistance.

You're welcome. I said that because I know that someone learning Spanish could understand the struggle and maybe explain things from an English speaker perspective better than me.

Anyway, I hope it helped :D
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby AndyMeg » Tue Mar 21, 2017 12:45 pm

mjfleck2000 wrote:If my understanding is correct ser focused on what happened and estar focused on what changed. Is this closer to the idea or "feeling" you have when using the two different verbs?


Another spanish native speaker here, so I don't know the exact explanation and rule.

I think you are right, but I would word it like this:

"Ser" plus "another verb" --> focuses on the action.
"Estar" plus "another verb" --> focuses on the state.

When alone, I think they work like this:

"Ser" --> permanent or more durable state (it is usually very connected to the essence of something or someone). For example:
- Soy profesora (I'm a teacher)
- Soy María (I'm María)
- El agua es refrescante (Water "in general" is refreshing)

"Estar" --> a state that can change at any moment. For example:
- Eso está muy lejos (That's too far away--> but as I get closer, the state will change and it won't be that far way anymore)
- El agua está refrescante ("The water is refreshing": this particular water is refreshing now --> but, for example, if you boil it, then it won't be refreshing but hot).


And there's a case in which you can use both "ser" and "estar" in the same sentence. For example:

Él está siendo detenido (his current state is that he is, right now, being arrested/detained)
Last edited by AndyMeg on Tue Mar 21, 2017 1:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby smallwhite » Tue Mar 21, 2017 1:22 pm

ser + pp
= passive voice
The window is opened (by someone)
La ventana es abierta (por alguien)
synonymous with Someone opened the window
another way of saying Someone opened the window
Damn, someone opened my window again, it is opened again; why do people keep opening MY window?

estar + pp
= a description just like The window is beautiful
The window is beautiful (so beautiful I want to buy it)
The window is open (open and therefore too windy in the room)
synonymous with There is a hole in the wall (the open window)
The shop is open (open and you can get your milk now)
synonymous with It is currently the shop's business hours

Beer is drunk (passive)
He is drunk (descriptive)

The burglar es detenido =synon= Someone arrested the burglar
The burglar está detenido =synon= The burglar is sitting in jail
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby Cainntear » Sat Mar 25, 2017 1:46 pm

mjfleck2000 wrote:Hello fellow Spanish language learners....
I am having difficulty, at times, selecting the correct verb in the compound construction of ser + past participle and estar + past participle. The basic gramatical guide is that ser + pp indicates that an action was completed and estar + pp indicates the result of an action that was completed…. okey-dokey. That is not entirely clear.

Technical descriptions are rarely clear.

You're one step away from understanding, and it's all already been said in the thread, but to summarise:

Let's start by going back to English, with it's lack of ser/estar destinction. "They were married" can mean one of two things depending on the context.

"They were married in the church of St Luke on the 4th of September 1954" -- this is a passive construction saying that "the priest married them to each other" (or "they married each other" depending on how you use the verb "marry")

"They were married for twenty years" -- this isn't a passive construction, because it's not describing the act of saying the vows, exchanging rings, signing the register etc. Note that you can't say "The priest married them for twenty years" because that just isn't what it means.

Bringing it down to the core:
A passive construction is about an action (in this case "marrying")
The other construction is about a state.

As smallwhite points out, a sentence like "they are married" is the same structure as:
smallwhite wrote:The window is beautiful


That is to say that we're using the past participle as an adjective, just like any other adjective.

Consider for example "how are you?"
You could answer "I'm good," "I'm alright," "I'm still sore" or even "I'm tired". Nobody's going to have a problem seeing "tired" as a plain old adjective here, but most people will also readily recognise that the adjective "tired" derives from the verb "tire", even if they can't express that in words.

There's practically no difference between how this works in Spanish and in English.
(Which is one of the reasons I say translation isn't a bad thing at all.)
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby s_allard » Sun Apr 02, 2017 5:26 pm

Cainntear wrote:...
Bringing it down to the core:
A passive construction is about an action (in this case "marrying")
The other construction is about a state.

As smallwhite points out, a sentence like "they are married" is the same structure as:
smallwhite wrote:The window is beautiful


That is to say that we're using the past participle as an adjective, just like any other adjective.

Consider for example "how are you?"
You could answer "I'm good," "I'm alright," "I'm still sore" or even "I'm tired". Nobody's going to have a problem seeing "tired" as a plain old adjective here, but most people will also readily recognise that the adjective "tired" derives from the verb "tire", even if they can't express that in words.

There's practically no difference between how this works in Spanish and in English.
(Which is one of the reasons I say translation isn't a bad thing at all.)


I may be a bit late to this discussion but there is a small but major detail here that I want to dispute. Although I agree with smallwhite's and cainntear's explanation in general here, I strongly disagree with the statement "There's practically no difference between how this works in Spanish and in English." The fundamental problem as stated by the OP is the existence of two verbs in Spanish, ser and estar, where English uses only one. If Spanish had only one verb for "to be", like the French être, you could say that Spanish functions like English. But, as we know, in Spanish one has to choose not only between two verbs but also the right form of the verb, all according to the context.

Let's take for example the following sentence:

1. In 2010 we were married.

This is somewhat ambiguous. Depending on the context, this sentence could mean two things:
2. We got married in 2010.
3. At the time of certain events in 2010, we were a married couple.

In Spanish, things are much more complicated. If you google ser/estar casado, you'll find a plethora of articles pointing out that the two verbs are basically interchangeable but that Spain tends to use ser whereas Latin America favours estar.

But referring to our specific example (1) above, how would you translate the two meanings (2) and (3). It's a bit tricky. You could say:

4. Fuimos casados en 2010.
5. En 2010, estábamos casados.

Note that not only are we using ser in example 4 but also the pretérito tense form to indicate past action whereas in 5 we are using the imperfecto of estar.

All of this to say that despite certain certain common principles, there are major differences between Spanish and English in this regard.
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Re: Spanish past participle construction

Postby Serafín » Sun Apr 02, 2017 6:58 pm

Can someone change the topic of the thread to "Spanish past participle construction"? Thanks.
mjfleck2000 wrote:Hello fellow Spanish language learners....
I am having difficulty, at times, selecting the correct verb in the compound construction of ser + past participle and estar + past participle. The basic gramatical guide is that ser + pp indicates that an action was completed and estar + pp indicates the result of an action that was completed…. okey-dokey. That is not entirely clear.

I was reading a news article that said “ el hombre fue detenido”. Hmmm… I thought, why isn’t that “el hombre está detenido”. Let’s see… fue detenido is a passive construction regarding an occurrence in the past… okay, that makes sense… but , but, but… why not “ el hombre estuvo detenido”. Certainly they are not saying that the state of being detained is a inherent characteristic of the man. But, then again, my new sentence is not a passive construction.
Why not "estuvo detenido"? Because the construction of estar in the preterite (estuve) + participle* is used for the state of a result** along with its duration of time, for things typically done temporarily. El hombre estuvo detenido por tres días 'The man was detained for three days (but is most likely free now)'. In contrast, what the author of the news article intended was to express an element of change, the man going from being free to being detained, in which case the preterite passive is called for: el hombre fue detenido.

*In the terminology I prefer, "gerund" is the word for the -ando/-iendo form, so the -ado/-ido "past participle" is just "the participle".
**I strongly disagree with aledda that there's any element of change involved. To me, estuve + participle expresses a state of affairs.
I remember using the sentence “ la ventana está abierta” when I was in Panamá. I went to google translate and typed in “The window is open” -> “La ventana está abierta”. Okay.
I then typed in “The window is opened by John” -> La ventana está abierta por Juan”… yep, me gusta.
*La ventana está abierta por Juan is plain wrong Spanish though: it actually means "the window is open for John", not "by John". Don't trust Google Translate...

This is not to say that you can't use an agent introduced by por por in the estar + participle construction, as seen below in my next reply. Take it as part of the behaviour of the verb abrir. A correct, fairly literal translation of "the window is opened by John" would be La ventana es abierta por Juan, but honestly, this is the kind of strange sentence that syntacticians love but that native speakers are unlikely to say. I think it'd be more idiomatic, certainly in spoken language, to go for La ventana la abre Juan or just Juan abre la ventana.
Now, if I change the verb to the past tense, I get a different construction. “The window WAS opened by John” -> “La ventana FUE abierta por Juan”.

As you can see, I am confused by the differences between the two constructions of ser + pp versus estar + pp. I have studied these constructions but I would appreciate some help here. I especially would like the point of view of other native English speakers who know the challenge I am having and have figured out some explanation that guides me to select the correct usage.

I suspect that contrasting these constructions in both the present and the preterite could be of benefit for you. For the passives I'm also giving you a more informal rephrasing of the same sentences typical of spoken language. (Remember that native Spanish speakers don't use the "ser + participle" passive as often as English speakers use "be + past participle".)


  • El hombre es detenido (por la policía). 'The man is detained/arrested (by the police).' <- Change of state present (present passive): the man goes from being free to being detained. Also, more informally: al hombre lo detiene la policía ~ la policía detiene al hombre. ~ al hombre lo detienen*.
  • El hombre está detenido (por la policía). 'The man is (currently) detained (by the police).' <- State of the result of an action (the police's detainment/arrest of the man): the man is in the state of being detained after the police arrested him.
  • El hombre ha sido detenido (por la policía). 'The man has been arrested (by the police).' <- Change of state present (present perfect passive): the man was arrested and is still detained by the police. The emphasis is on the change of state from freedom to detainment. Also, more informally: al hombre lo tiene detenido la policía ~ la policía tiene detenido al hombre ~ al hombre lo tienen detenido*.
  • El hombre ha estado detenido (por la policía) por tres días. ~ El hombre lleva tres días detenido. 'The man has been detained for three days.' <- State of the result of an action for the mentioned period of time up to the present. The emphasis is on the length of time that continued onto the present.

  • El hombre fue detenido (por la policía). 'The man was detained/arrested (by the police).' <- change of state present: the man went from being free to being detained. Also, more informally: al hombre lo detuvo la policía ~ la policía detuvo al hombre ~ al hombre lo detuvieron*.
  • El hombre estuvo detenido (por la policía) por tres días. 'The man was detained (by the police) for three days.' <- state of the result of an action: the man was in the state of being detained for three days after being arrested.

*In case you're unfamiliar with the construction (I realize that it's not often taught to students because it's quite informal), in spoken Spanish it's common to use the third person plural as a semantic passive: ayer trajeron las mochilas azules 'the blue backpacks were brought yesterday', a mi hijo lo mataron con pistola 'my son was killed with a gun'.

s_allard wrote:Let's take for example the following sentence:

1. In 2010 we were married.

This is somewhat ambiguous. Depending on the context, this sentence could mean two things:
2. We got married in 2010.
3. At the time of certain events in 2010, we were a married couple.

In Spanish, things are much more complicated. If you google ser/estar casado, you'll find a plethora of articles pointing out that the two verbs are basically interchangeable but that Spain tends to use ser whereas Latin America favours estar.

But referring to our specific example (1) above, how would you translate the two meanings (2) and (3). It's a bit tricky. You could say:

4. Fuimos casados en 2010.
5. En 2010, estábamos casados.

Note that not only are we using ser in example 4 but also the pretérito tense form to indicate past action whereas in 5 we are using the imperfecto of estar.

All of this to say that despite certain certain common principles, there are major differences between Spanish and English in this regard.
And on top of that, your sentence #4 is not something that native speakers would typically use, certainly as far as spoken language goes! They, well, we would prefer to simply say nos casamos en 2010 (where casamos is in the preterite), or if you're mentioning the agent, el padre Toño nos casó en 2010.
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Re: Spanish past particle construction

Postby s_allard » Sun Apr 02, 2017 11:25 pm

I think this last post by serafin is very good and illustrates how complex how what seems to be a rather simple question can really be quite complex when one tries to compare the grammar of two dissimilar languages. What adds complexity, as serafin so rightly points out, is that spoken usage - and this can include a vast range of regional and social class variation - often uses alternative forms that are quite different to what is theoretically correct. In this regard, one of the big differences between Spanish and English verb usage lies in the fact that Spanish verbs incorporate both tense and aspect into the morphology whereas English does not incorporate aspect and uses more periphrases and circumlocutions. But this is a subject for another thread.

And while we are at, a fascinating topic that I'm sure serafin is quite aware of, is the English pseudo-passive construction that is rare in other languages. This includes forms like:

You are expected to arrive on time.
We were told the same story.
She was awarded a prize for her new book.
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