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Ser and Estar

Spanish has two forms of the verb to be: ser and estar. Mastering the distinctions between the two is vital, since both verbs have a way of coming up in virtually every conversation and in almost any paragraph of text. Also, in some cases which one you chose changes the meaning of what you say or write.

First, the major distinctions between the two verbs. Although both translate as to be in English, they are used with different meanings and in different situations. Ser is used as follows.

Equational sentences use ser to make statements like ‘A is B’, where A and B are pronouns or nouns. Note that in colloquial speech estar is often used in statements about the weather. In standard speech the verb hacer is used to form statements about the weather.

• Somos hermanos. (We are brothers.)

• El gato es muy simpático. (The cat is very nice.)

• Ella es maestra de español.(She is a Spanish teacher)

Note that in Spanish the indefinite/definite article found in the English is not used in the third example. This is common in Spanish and must be practiced before it becomes comfortable.

Adjectives come with ser to make statements about the nature or identity of someone or something, and can include physical and mental characteristics.

• ¿Quién es? (Who is it?)

• Esta camisa es roja. (This shirt is red.)

Ser is also used with certain adjectives that describe seem to describe states or conditions, a role ordinarily played by estar. These adjectives feliz (happy), desgraciado (unhappy), culpable (guilty), innocente (innocent), and pobre (poor). Estar is sometimes used with these adjectives too, though only to express a transitory or temporary situation.

Identity and origin are expressed with ser + de and describe both people and things. Many of these uses are very common, and should be mastered quickly and completely.

• ¿De dónde eres tú? (Where are you from?)

• Ella es de carne y hueso. (She is flesh and blood.)

• Es de la Ciudad de México. (He is from Mexico city)

Time is expressed using ser, even though it may seem more natural to use estar. Note that ser becomes singular when talking about one o’clock but otherwise is plural.

• Es la una. (It’s one o’clock.)

• Son las seis y media. (It’s six thirty)

By contrast, estar is used as follows.

Temporary states are expressed with estar + adjectives to indicate physical condition, temporary or transitory physical appearance, mood, and other non-characteristic features of a person or thing.

• Estoy cansado y estresado. (I am tired and stressed)

• El está deprimido. (He is depressed.)

• El carro es estropeado. (The car isn’t working.)

Similar statements are made with estar + de, con, or an adverb.

• Está de mal humor. (He is in a bad mood.)

• Está de viaje. (She is on vacation.)

• Estoy con gripe. (I’ve got the flu.)

• Estoy bien. (I’m well.)

Location is expressed with estar, though with nouns that are permanent features or characteristics ser is often heard in colloquial speech.

• Madrid está en España. (Madrid is in Spain.)

• ¿Está ella en casa? (Is she home?)

There are more subtle distinctions concerning where and when to use ser and estar, but they are best learned by living in and using the language on a daily basis. Sometimes you can use them interchangeably, as when talking about marital status, social manner or behavior, when using adjectives about the weather (with words like día or tiempo), or with quantities and prices. If the sentence implies a change of condition or state, then estar should be used.

There are also a number of cases in which the meaning of a idiom changes due to using ser or estar. The list below is not exhaustive, but covers the common everyday expressions and usages in Spanish.

  ser estar
aburrido be boring be bored
atento be courteous be attentive
bueno be good be tasty
cansado be tiresome; dull be tired
consciente be aware be conscious (awake)
decidido be resolute be decided
despierto be alert; sharp be awake; be up
un enfermo be an invalid be sick
interesado be self-serving be interested
listo be clever; smart be ready
loco be scatterbrained be mad; upset
malo be bad be sick
rico be rich be delicious
torpe be slow-witted be clusmy; awkward
verde be green; smutty be unripe
violento be violent; be embararassing be embarrassed
vivo be alert; shart be alive

Finally, bear in mind that Spanish natives themselvs sometimes make mistakes (or awkward choices) with ser and estar, so just because you heard someone say ser somewhere does not mean that is what is considered good or correct Spanish. Also, usage does vary from one country to another, especially with idioms. So practice and check your use of ser and estar.

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