Ser or Estar - That Is the Question
Spanish Toughest Verbs – Ser and Estar – Explained and Made Easy by Our Spanish Teachers from FUIA
Whether you’re a total beginner or you’ve been studying Spanish for a while, you might have heard that ser and estar are a little bit challenging to master.
Ok let’s admit it, these two verbs drive learners completely crazy.
As this is going to be a long post we will provide links that will take you to the relevant sections of the post below.
Why are these verbs so challenging?
- Ser and estar can both be translated into English as ‘to be’.
- This distinction doesn’t exist in other languages (except from Iberian Romance languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Galician and Catalan; and Mandarin).
- The rules for when to use ser or estar might not be always that obvious.
Do I really need to know the difference?
Is it that important?
We’re really sorry to say this, but yes, it’s actually quite important. Using ser or estar incorrectly can create so much confusion. Just to give you a few examples, it’s very different to say “you are boring” and “you are bored”; “you are a good person” and “you are good looking”. In all these cases the use of ser and estar is crucial because they could change completely the meaning of the sentence.
But don’t worry, in this post you’ll learn how to conjugate ser and estar, we’re giving you the golden rule that will allow you to understand the main uses of ser and estar. And you know what they say “la práctica hace al maestro” (“Practice makes perfect.”).
Ser and Estar Conjugations
Here you can find the conjugations of ser and estar in the Present of Indicative.
Él / Ella / Usted
Nosotros / Nosotras
Vosotros / Vosotras
Ellos / Ellas / Ustedes
Ser vs. Estar – What’s the Golden Rule?
As promised, we are going to share with you a Golden rule that will help you to decide whether to use ser or estar, in case you can’t remember a specific rule in context.
Ser is used to talk about WHAT something is; to describe the inherent characteristics, the ones that are always true and never change.
In order to help you remember some of those lasting attributes we want to give you a useful acronym: DOCTOR, which stands for Descriptions, Occupations, Characteristics, Time, Origin, and Relationships.
Estar is used to talk about HOW something is; to describe temporary states and characteristics; and locations.
If you want to remember some of those temporary states think of the acronym PLACE, which stands for Position, Location, Action, Condition and Emotion.
So far it sounds quite straight forward right? Now, let’s have a look at it in more detail.
When to Use Ser
We use ser to describe objects and people: their physical appearance and their personality. We believe that appearance and personality are quite permanent. Let’s see it with a few examples:
If you’re intelligent today, will you be intelligent tomorrow? Yes, that’s quite likely.
If you’re blonde, will you be blonde tomorrow? Probably yes. But what if you dye your hair? We’re sorry if this breaks your patterns but we still see it as something kind of permanent, so we’d use the verb ser too.
Mi piso es grande y moderno. (My flat is big and modern.)
Shakira es alta, rubia y muy guapa. (Shakira is tall, blonde and very beautiful.)
Mi novio es cariñoso y muy romántico. (My boyfriend is caring and very romantic.)
2. Occupations/ Professions
In Spanish, professions have always been very important in people’s lives. Traditionally a person would have a profession for life; nowadays it’s a little bit less common but we do still have careers we devote ourselves to. In those cases we use ser.
Yo soy profesora. (I’m a teacher.)
Mi novio es arquitecto. (My boyfriend is an architect.)
Madonna y Lady Gaga son cantantes. (Madonna and Lady Gaga are singers.)
Remember! In Spanish we don’t need the indefinite article “un/a” before the profession. Instead of “Juan es un taxista”, we say “Juan es taxista”.
Again, when we are describing something: its height, shape, size, colour and material; we use ser. If you think about it, most of those characteristics don’t change, right?
La mesa es de madera. (The table is made of wood.)
El coche de Cristina es rojo. (Cristina’s car is red.)
4. Time, Date and Season
In most cases, we use ser to talk about time, date and season.
Es la una de la tarde. (It’s one o’clock in the afternoon.)
Son las siete y cuarto de la mañana. (It’s quarter past seven in the morning.)
Hoy es 31 de agosto de 2018. (Today it’s 31st of August of 2018.)
¡Es primavera ya! (It’s spring already!)
Remember! When we express the time, the hour “one” is singular so the verb “ser” is conjugated in the 3rd person singular: es; the other hours (2, 3, 4, 5, etc) are plural so “ser” is conjugated in the 3rd person plural: son.
5. Origin of Nationality
This is one of the easiest to remember, as it couldn’t be more permanent. If you were born in Germany, you are German today and you will be German tomorrow and so on. You won’t wake up one day being English, right?
Shakira es de Colombia pero vive en España. (Shakira is from Colombia but lives in Spain.)
Yo soy española y mi novio es polaco. (I’m Spanish and my boyfriend is Polish.)
When we describe the relationships between people we use ser. Those relationships don’t usually change from one day to another. It’s true that we can break up with our partner, but it’s also true that relationships tend to last for a while.
Este es mi novio. (This is my boyfriend.)
Pedro y Julia son mis hermanos. (Pedro and Julia are my siblings.)
When we ask for the price of a product we use ser, as normally the price doesn’t change.
– ¿Cuánto es? – Son diez euros. (– How much is it? – It’s ten euros.)
8. Religious or Political Affiliation
When we talk about the religious or political affiliation we use ser. If you think about it, both of them give information about our identity; about who we are.
Juan y Marta son católicos pero su hijo Pedro es ateo. (Juan and Marta are catholic but their son Pedro is atheist.)
Rodrigo y sus amigos son de izquierdas. (Rodrigo and his friends have a left wing orientation.)
9. When and Where an Event
Is Taking Place
When we talk about when and where an event will be, we use ser. The event could be a class, a party, a play, etc.
La fiesta es en la casa de Juan. (The party is at Juan’s house.)
La reunión es a las 11 en el aula 6. (The meeting is at 11 in classroom 6.)
Los conciertos son en el parque. (The concerts are in the park.)
To indicate possession of objects and family/ friend relationships, we use ser.
Esta es mi madre, mi padre y estos son mis hermanos. (This is my mother, my father and these are my siblings.)
Este es mi libro y esos los vuestros. (This is my book and those are yours.)
When to Use Estar
When we describe the physical position or the posture a person or a thing is in, we use estar.
Marta está tumbada en la cama. (Marta is lying in bed.)
Juan está sentado delante del ordenador. (Juan is sitting in front of the computer.)
2. Location (Geographic or Physical)
When we want to say where people or things are we use estar.
To be honest, there’s always controversy about this one in the classroom. Students see the following example:
Tenerife está en España. (Tenerife is in Spain.)
… and they usually ask: Why not “Tenerife es en España”?. They say that Tenerife’s location is permanent, that is not going to change. And they are probably quite right, but we always tell them that even that location could technically change. Think about all the conquers, aren’t the countries changing?
El supermercado está en la Calle Alemania. (The supermarket is in Germany Street.)
With this example too, think about all the shops that open and close in your neighborhood. Their location is not completely permanent.
Los actores están en el hotel. (The actors are at the hotel.)
3. Action (Progressive Tense)
When we talk about what we are currently doing, we use estar with the gerund. Studying, having dinner and working are all temporary actions that finish at some point to start doing something else.
– ¿Qué estás haciendo? – Estoy estudiando. (– What are you doing? – I’m studying)
Estamos cenando en el jardín. (We’re having dinner in the garden.)
4. Conditions and Physical States
When we describe the physical condition of something we use estar. Here you have some adjectives:
– abierto/a – cerrado/a (open – closed)
– limpio/a – sucio/a (clean – dirty)
– encendido/a – apagado/a (switched on – switched off)
If you pay attention, you will realise that all these adjectives are the result of an action, so it can change. If I open the door, the door is open; if I close it, it’s closed.
Aquella mesa está libre ahora, pero todavia está sucia. (That table is free now but it’s still dirty.)
Son las diez y media, la tienda ya está cerrada. (It’s half past ten, the shop is already closed.)
El baño está ocupado, tienes que esperar. (The bathroom is busy, you have to wait.)
If we describe the physical state of someone, we also use estar.
Mi amiga María está enferma desde el lunes. (My friend María has been sick since Monday.)
Pedro y Ana están deprimidos, su perro se ha muerto. (Pedro and Ana are depressed, their dog has passed away.)
When we talk about emotions we always use estar. Emotions and feelings are constantly changing. After a break-up, you feel sad but after a few weeks you start feeling better, and with time you feel happy again.
Estoy muy triste, mi perro murió ayer. (I’m very sad, my dog died yesterday.)
Mi novio está muy contento, ha aprobado todos los exámenes. (My boyfriend is very happy, he’s passed all the exams.)
6. Temporary or Variable Prices
When we want to emphasize that prices are constantly changing (in a local market for example) we use estar followed by the preposition “a”.
Los tomates para ensalada están de oferta, están a 80 céntimos el kilo. (The salad tomatoes are in offer, they are 80 cents per kilogram.)
– ¿A cuánto están los plátanos hoy? – Están a 1, 50 el kilo. (– How much are the bananas today? – They’re 1,50 per kilo.)
7. Civil Status
When we talk about marital status, we use estar. Although we like to believe that things last forever, the truth is that things change, so does our civil status. One day we are single, the next day we are in love, then engaged and so on.
Estoy prometido. (I’m engaged.)
Mi hermano está soltero. (My brother is single.)
Estamos casados. (We’re married.)
But remember: Soy viudo/a. (I’m a widow.): In this case we use the verb ser.
8. Temporary Job
If you aren’t talking about your “real profession”, and you want to refer to that temporary job you are currently doing, you can use estar with the preposition “de”. By using estar + de we emphasize that it isn’t a permanent situation.
Pedro no encuentra trabajo de psicólogo, así que está de camarero en un restaurante. (Pedro can’t find a job as a psychologist, so he is working as a waiter at a restaurant.)
Julia sigue buscando trabajo de contable pero por el momento está de recepcionista en el Hotel Gran Via. (Julia keeps looking for an accountant job but for the time being she’s a receptionist at the Gran Via Hotel.)
Remember: We don’t say “estar de estudiante”.
Adjectives with Ser and Estar
Sometimes you don’t have to think, as there are some adjectives that they always go with ser and estar. Have a look at the table below and start using them with the correct verb!
conocido (famoso) – desconocido
bien – mal
legal – ilegal
fácil – difícil
cerca – lejos
de acuerdo – en desacuerdo
a favor – en contra
enfadado – contento
estropeado (roto) – arreglado
lleno – vacío
posible – imposible
prohibido – permitido
4 Tips How to Learn Ser vs Estar
The most obvious one: practice!
It’s completely normal to make mistakes so keep the motivation up and try to see them as a great opportunity to learn and improve your skills.
“To learn something new, you need to try new things and not be afraid to be wrong.”
(Roy T. Bennett)
If your aim is to absorb like a sponge as much as you can, then you should expose yourself to Spanish as much as possible. Easy to say, but … how? Don’t worry, our teachers have some awesome ideas for you:
- Speaking with native speakers
– Language exchange – tandem with a native speaker who lives near you
– Language exchange or conversation classes through the platforms: Italkie, Hello talk or Speaky.
- Listening to podcasts (applications like Podcast Republic have free Spanish podcasts)
- Reading stories and Spanish books (according to your level)
Try to pay attention when Spanish native speakers use ser and estar and ask questions if needed, questions are super important!
Whenever you read a book or a story in Spanish, concentrate in the use of ser and estar.
We know it might be overwhelming at the beginning but we promise you that before you know it, the use of ser and estar will become natural to you.
the fastest way possible?
We teach you according to our 24 Level System to Spanish Fluency, where we clearly define your next goals to be accomplished fast so you stay motivated all the way to Spanish fluency.