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Ser vs. Estar

For the majority of my students one of the most difficult things to learn in Spanish is the difference between “ser” and “estar”. Both can be translated into English as "to be" but, depending on what you are saying, you will have to decide which to use. Deciding between "ser" and "estar" while deciding between the preterite and the imperfect is a quadruple challenge. I intend here to give you some guidance so that you can use “ser” and “estar” correctly.

Most of you were taught at school that the difference between “ser” and “estar” is defined in terms of permanence (ser) and temporariness (estar). This notion is of some use, but does not cover all possibilities and can be misleading. A better way to understand “ser” and “estar” is to learn the different uses of each.

Let's look at their uses:

 

Uses of Ser

1. Essential quality (essence)

2. Relationship

3. Origin

4. Marital status and relationship

5. Religious or political affiliation

6. Occupation

7. Time and date

8. Possession

9. Impersonal expressions

10. The material something is made of

11. Where an event is taking place

Uses of Estar

1. Condition (state)

2. Location

3. With the past participle

4. Look, seem, taste or feel

5. To be alive or dead

6. Idioms with “estar”

7. Progressive tenses

Uses of Ser  

“Ser” from the Latin essere is associated with the word ‘essence’.

1. Essential quality (essence)

In general, “ser” tells who the subject is or what it is in its essence. Think of what you would say if someone asked you ‘What is it?’, ‘What is it like?’, ‘What does it look like?’. These are inherent or essential qualities that define a person or thing and probably will not change. They can be a name or a physical description.

La manzana es verde. (The apple is green.)

This sentence means that the colour of the apple is green and this apple will remain green even after it has ripened. This example speaks of an essential characteristic of the apple. The apple is green in color. This apple will remain green even after it has ripened.

Let’s compare with “estar”: La manzana está verde. (The apple is green.) This means that the apple is not ripe. This example speaks of the condition of the apple. The apple is green because it has not ripened yet. When the condition of the apple changes, that is, when it has ripened, it will not be green any more, it will be ripe.

Look at some more examples or “ser”:

¿Qué es eso? – Eso es un libro. (What is that? – That is a book.)

¿Cómo es ella? – Ella es lista. (What is she like? – She is clever.)

¿Cómo es ella? – Ella es alta y guapa. (What does she look like? – She is tall and pretty.)

¿Quién es ese? – Ese es Pedro. (Who is that? – That is Pedro.)

2. Relationship

“Ser” is used to express relationship.

Pedro es el hermano de Sergio. (Roberto is Sergio's brother.)

3. Origin

“Ser” is used to express origin.

¿Es ella colombiana? – No, es española. (Is she Colombian? – No, she is Spanish.)

¿De dondé eres tú? – Soy de Barcelona. (Where are you from? – I am from Barcelona.)

4. Marital status and relationship

“Ser” is used to express whether or not someone is married and describe relationships.

¿Quién es Pedro? – Pedro es mi marido. (Who is Pedro? – Pedro is my husband.)
Sara es mi madre.
(Sara is my mother.)
Jorge es mi ex-novio.
(Jorge is my ex-boyfriend.)

Note: When speaking of marital status “estar” and “ser” are interchangeable and the meaning does not change.

5. Religious or political affiliation.

Religion is considered a relationship with a higher power and so religions are also described using “ser”.

Andrés es católico. (Andrés is Catholic.)
Sergio es comunista.
(Sergio is communist.)

6. Occupation

Occupations are seen as life-long careers and are therefore seen as "permanent".

Soy profesora de español. (I am a Spanish teacher.)
Ellos son estudiantes.
(They are students.)
Mi padre era jardinero.
(My father was a gardener.)

Note: You can use “estar” when you have a temporary job. Mi amigo es arquitecto, pero ahora está de dependiente. (My friend is architect, but now he is working as a shop assistant.)

7. The time and the date

Time includes days of the weeks, months, seasons of the year and hours. For hours, use ”es” for one o'clock and ”son” for all other hours.

Hoy es miércoles. (Today is Wednesday.)
Ayer fue mi cumpleaños.
(Yesterday was my birthday.)
Ahora es la una y media.
(Right now it's one thirty.)
Son las cinco y veintecinco.
(It's five twenty five.)
Es verano.
(It’s summer.)
Son treinta euros.
(It's thirty Euros.)

Note: When speaking of time and the verb ‘to be’ is followed by a preposition + noun, “estar” is used.
¿En qué mes estamos? – Estamos en Junio. (What month are we in? – We are in June.)
On the other hand: ¿Qué día es hoy? – Hoy es Lunes. (What day is today? – Today is Monday.)

8. Possession.

“Ser” is used to express possession.

¿De quién es ese coche? – Ese coche es mío. (Whose car is that? – Ese coche es mío.)

9. Impersonal expressions.

“Ser” is used in impersonal expressions.

Es necesario comer cada día.. (It's necessary to eat every day.)
Es importante ser agradable con las personas.
(It's important to be nice to people.)

10. The material something is made of.

“Ser” is used to express the material something is made of.

Esa silla es de Madera. (That chair is made of wood.)

¿Es de oro? No, es de plata. (Is it made of gold? No, it's made of silver.)

11. Where an event is taking place.

“Ser” is used to tell where an event or party is taking place: shows, exams, films, meetings, etc.

La fiesta es en mi casa. (The party is at my house.)

¿Dónde es la conferencia? - Es en el aula 35. (Where does the lecture take place? - It's in classroom 35.)

Note: “Estar” is used to say where something is and expresses location:
El profesor no está aquí. (The teacher is here.)
Está encima de la mesa. (It is on the table.)
Estamos en casa. (We are at home.)

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Uses of Estar  

“Estar”, from the Latin stare associated with the word 'state'.

1. Condition (state)

In general, “estar” usually relates where or in what condition or position the subject is. Think of what you would say if someone asked you ‘How are you?’, ‘How is that?’.

La manzana está verde. (The apple is green.)

This means that the apple is not ripe. This example speaks of the condition of the apple. The apple is green because it has not ripened yet. When the condition of the apple changes, that is, when it has ripened, it will not be green any more, it will be ripe.

Let’s compare with “ser”: La manzana es verde. (The apple is green.)
This sentence means that the colour of the apple is green and this apple will remain green even after it has ripened. This example speaks of an essential characteristic of the apple. The apple is green in colour. This apple will remain green even after it has ripened.

Look at some more examples or “estar”:

Estoy tan cansada esta mañana. (I am so tired this morning.)
Mis niños están enfermos hoy.
(My children are sick today.)
Mi madre está un poca loca.
(My mother is (acting) a little crazy.)
Mi habitación está limpia y ordenada.
(My bedroom is clean and tidy.)
¿Cómo está el té? - El té está frío.
(How is the tea? – The tea is cold.)

Position is the physical position or posture a person or thing is in:

Mi abuela está sentada. (My grandmother is sitting down/seated.)
Yo estaba acostada cuando me llamaste.
(I was lying down when you called me.)

2. Location

The location of someone or something describes where it is permanently, temporarily, actually, or conceptually.

El baño está a la derecha de la sala. (The bathroom is to the right of the living room.)
Estamos en el café ahora y estarémos en el cine en 20 minutos.
(We are at the café right now and we will be at the movie theatre in 20 minutes.)
¿Dónd está tu marido? - Está en Barcelona.
(Where is your husband? - He's in Barcelona.)

Note: “Es” is used to tell where an event or party is taking place: shows, exams, films, meetings, etc.
La fiesta es en mi casa. (The party is at my house.)

3. With the past participle

It indicates the state or condition resulting from a previous action. In this case, the past participle is used as an adjective and agrees with the subject in gender and number.

¿No puedes leer las cartas? - No, están escritas en chino . (Can't you read the letters? - No, they're written in Chinese.)

4. Seem, look, taste or feel

With personal reactions, "estar” describes what is perceived through the senses, that is, how a person or thing seems, looks, tastes or feels.

¿Te gusta la Paella? - ¡Sí, está muy rica! (Do you like the Paella? - Yes, it's very tasty!)

5. To be alive or to be dead

To be alive or to be dead are considered states or conditions that are expressed using "estar”.

¿Está vivo? - No, está muerto (Is he alive? - No, he is dead.)

Mi bisabuelo está muerto. (My great-grandfather is dead.)

6. Idioms with “estar”

“Estar” is used with many idiomatic expressions. Most of them follow the structure “estar + preposicion”. These are just a few:

Estar de acuerdo (to agree)
Estoy de acuerdo contigo en este tema. (I agree with you on this issue.)

Estar de buen/mal humor (to be in a good/bad mood)
Hoy
estoy de buen humor porque no hay clases.
(Today I am in a good mood because there are no classes.)

Estar de vacaciones (to be on holiday)
Pedro está de vacaciones en Barcelona. (Pedro is on holiday in Barcelona.)

Estar en las nubes (to daydream)
Pedro está enamorado y parece que está en las nubes.
(Pedro is in love and it seems like he is daydreaming.)

Estar en forma (to be in good shape)
Roberto es muy guapo y está en forma.
(Roberto is very handsome and he is in good shape.)

Está despejado (it’s clear)
El cielo está ahorita despejado. (The sky is now clear.)

Estar al corriente de (to be up to date)
Ustedes necesitan estar al corriente de las noticias de su país. (You guys need to be up to date with your country's news.)

Estar de vuelta (to be back)
Mi jefe estará de vuelta en dos horas.
(My boss will be back in two hours.)

Estar hecho polvo (to be worn out)
He estado trabajando toda la noche y ahora estoy hecho polvo.
(I’ve been working all night and I’m worn out).

Estar de paso (to be passing through)
No se moleste en tomar mi chaqueta, solamente estoy de paso.
(Don't bother on getting my jacket, I am just passing through.)

Estar en todo (to have a finger in everything)
Gabriela siempre quiere estar en todo y no hace nada bien.
(Gabriela always wants to have a finger in everything and she does nothing well.)

Estar de mal humor (to be in a bad mood)
No quiero ir a verlo porque siempre está de mal humor.
(I don't want to go see him because he is always in a bad mood.)

Estar a dos velas (to be broke)
Mi vecino y su esposa están a dos velas después de haber perdido sus trabajos. (My neighbour and his wife are broke after loosing their jobs.)

7. Progressive tenses

“Estar” is used to describe an ongoing action using the present progressive tense.

Estoy lavando los platos sucios. (I am washing the dirty dishes.)
Estamos leyendo los periódicos. (We are reading the newspapers.)
 

Note: In Spanish, death is seen as an ongoing action, not a permanent state, thus you use the verb “estar” and not “ser”.

Sus abuelos están muertos. (His grandparents are dead.)

 

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Meaning changes with Ser and Estar  

There are some words that can be used with both “ser” and “estar”, but take on different meanings depending on the verb. Below you will find a chart with both forms and their meanings in English.

Ser

ser aburrido

ser bueno

ser cansado

ser grave

ser listo

ser malo

ser orgulloso ser moreno

ser pálido

ser pesado

ser rico

ser seguro

ser verde

ser viejo

ser vivo

 

to be boring

to be good

to be a tiring person

to be serious

to be clever

to be bad

to be conceited or vain

to be dark-skinned

to be pale skinned

to be heavy

to be rich

to be safe

to be green

to be old

to be sharp

Estar

estar aburrido estar bueno estar cansado estar grave estar listo

estar malo estar orgulloso estar moreno estar pálido estar pesado estar rico

estar seguro estar verde estar viejo estar vivo

 

to be bored

to be tasty/attractive

to be tired

to be seriously ill

to be ready

to be ill

to be proud

to be tanned

to be pale

to be tiresome

to be tasty

to be certain

to be unripe

to look old

to be alive

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Marino GuerreroMARINO GUERRERO

I am a tutor of Spanish as a foreign language, dedicated to providing one-to-one Spanish lessons all over London and world wide through Skype.

 

 

 

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