Today we are going to look at two essential Spanish verbs that have the same meaning in English: Ser
Ser and estar both mean “to be”, and thus conceptually as English speakers, these two verbs can cause us all sorts of problems when deciding which verb to use.
Before we look at these Spanish verbs, let’s quickly discuss to be
as an English verb so we can fully appreciate its meaning.
The verb to be
is an essential English verb, playing a major role in many types of constructions. It functions as a main verb as well as an auxiliary verb. However, when we check a dictionary definition of the verb to be
we begin to realise quite how many meanings it can represent. These include: existing, occurring (taking place), occupying a position in space, having a state, quality, identity or role, and so on…
When we start constructions with “I am…”, “You are…”, “It is….” etc, we are using conjugated versions of to be.
However, what can follow any of those constructions could be any number of really quite different concepts. For instance: “I am happy”, and “I am tall” both use the same construction “I am…”, yet clearly what we are referring to are conceptually very different things. One being an emotional state, and the other being a physical characteristic. Yet, we use the same verb to associate these very different things to subjects. So, in English “to be” functions as a bit of a catch-all
verb for associating or linking many different concepts.
As mentioned, in Spanish we have two versions of the verb to be.
This is because, unlike English, a clear distinction is made between concepts like being tall and being happy.
This is one of the few cases where Spanish appears to have more precise vocabulary than English. Normally, we are used to individual Spanish verbs having multiple English meanings, not the other way around.
So how do we know when to use ser and estar?
Very loosely speaking. Ser
is used when we are talking about permanent or persisting attributes, whereas estar
is used to indicate temporary states or conditions.
Let’s look in a little more detail at both verbs and see some examples of when it is appropriate to use each. Ser
Ser is used when talking about permanent or persisting attributes. Examples of such attributes might include: Descriptions (physical or otherwise), names, occupations, roles, origins, relationships, characteristics and even time itself.
Before we look at some examples of ser, lets quickly see the verb conjugated into the present tense. ser (to be) | present indicative tense
| ||Singular ||Plural |
|1st Person ||soy ||somos |
|2nd Person ||eres ||sois |
|3rd Person ||es ||son |
The first thing we will notice about ser, is that it is highly irregular. This is often the case with the most important verbs. However, as an essential verb, our exposure to this verb will be high and should mean plenty of opportunity to practice and learn its various forms.
Let’s see a few examples of sentence constructions using ser, so we begin to understand when it is appropriate to use it:
|Spanish ||Meaning ||Attribute |
|"Soy David" ||I am David ||Name |
|"Él es bajo" ||He is short ||Description |
|"Somos ingleses" ||We are English ||Description |
|"¿Eres budista?" ||Are you buddhist? ||Description |
|"Ella es profesora de español" ||She is a Spanish teacher ||Occupation |
|"David y María son muy buenas personas" ||David and María are very nice people ||Characteristics |
|"Ella es de españa" ||She is from Spain ||Origin |
|"Son mis padres" ||They are my parents ||Relationship |
|"Hoy es sábado" ||Today is Saturday ||Time |
|"Son las cuatro en punto" ||It's 4 o'clock ||Time |
All of the above examples show attributes that are permanent or persisting. Of course, one can argue that we can change our name, grow taller, change our job, our relationship etc, but nonetheless they are not going to change regularly and are thus deemed persistent if nothing else.
Time itself might seem like a strange concept to consider permanent, as it’s always changing from moment to moment, right? But really, when we are asking about the time, we are referring to that specific moment in time. So, if it 4 o’clock right now, then it will always be 4 o’clock right now and that will never change. The fact you can ask the same question moments later and get a different answer, doesn’t change its permanency at that point in time. Estar Estar
is used when referring to temporary states and locations.
Notice that with estar, we are referring to states and not attributes.
“La televisión es
negra” (the television is black) and “la televisión es
enorme” (the television is huge), but “la televisión está
encendida” (the television is on).
In the above examples, we only use estar when referring to a state rather than a physical attribute. This is the main conceptual difference between ser and estar, the difference between attributes and states.
Before we look at some more examples, let’s remind ourselves how estar looks in the present tense. Again, we may notice that estar is a little irregular. estar (to be) | present indicative tense
| ||Singular ||Plural |
|1st Person ||estoy ||estamos |
|2nd Person ||estás ||estáis |
|3rd Person ||está ||están |
Estar is used when talking about temporary states or locations. Examples of temporary states include: positions, ongoing actions, conditions, emotions and so on. Let’s see some examples of such states and how we might use estar in a sentence construction.
|Spanish ||Meaning ||State |
|"Estoy sentado aquí" ||I'm sitting here ||Position |
|"Él está limpiando el coche" ||He is washing the car ||Ongoing action |
|"Estamos llegando ahora" ||We are coming now ||Ongoing action |
|"¿Estás cansado?" ||Are you tired? ||Condition |
|"¿Estáis bien?" ||Are you all okay? ||Condition |
|"Ella está triste" ||She is sad ||Emotion |
|"Están encantados" ||They are delighted ||Emotion |
|"Estamos aquí" ||We are here ||Location |
|"¿Dónde está?" ||Where is it? ||Location |
|"Madrid está en españa" ||Madrid is in Spain ||Location |
The above examples all reference concepts that are temporary states, rather than permanent attributes.
One of the example types that may cause and commonly does cause problems for native English speakers is location.
Let’s take the last example: “Madrid está en españa” (Madrid is in Spain).
Surely Madrid is in Spain and always will be in Spain? This suggests a permanent and enduring situation. It’s highly unlikely that Madrid will up sticks and move from Spain. So at a first look, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we use estar over ser.
However, if we consider the concept of location from the perspective of people: Then it starts to make more sense, as our personal locations change all the time.
Nevertheless, for many newcomers to Spanish, confusing ser with estar when referring to locations is an all too common problem and a hard habit to break.
una ciudad” (Madrid is a city) “Madrid es
la capital” (Madrid is the Capital), “Madrid está
en españa” (Madrid is in Spain).
Notice that in the above three examples, only the last uses estar. The first two statements are describing attributes of Madrid, whereas only the last refers to it as a location. Using Ser and Estar
Some situations will clearly warrant whether you should use ser or estar. For instance, you wouldn't say “Estoy David” as that really doesn’t make much sense.
However, there are plenty of examples of where either verb could apply, and sometimes resulting in a subtle yet important difference in meaning.
|Using ser ||Meaning ||Using estar ||Meaning |
|"Él es aburrido" ||He's boring ||"Él está aburrido" ||He's bored |
|"Son listos" ||They are clever ||"Están listos" ||They are ready |
|"Él es seguro" ||He is safe ||"Él está seguro" ||He is sure |
|"Ella es buena" ||She's good ||"¡Ella está buena!" ||She's hot! (good looking) |
Another example of were either ser or estar could apply is price. Usually we consider the price of an item an attribute, therefore we use ser: “Son 20€” (They are 20 euros).
However, when the price is variable, like at a market, then we could use estar: “Hoy está a 15€ el kilo” (Today it’s 15 euros per kilo). Conclusion | En conclusión
Being able to correctly use ser and estar is certainly a big challenge for any newcomer. But don’t worry if you make mistakes. I still do, regularly! It will take a while.
Making a clear distinction between attributes and states, with practice, shouldn’t take too long before becoming second nature. It is at this point, we begin to go beyond just translating, and starting to really think in Spanish.