What is the difference between ser and estar?

By Elizabeth Zackheim June 21st 8:21 am

Ser? Estar? ¡Ay caramba!

One of the first challenges you bump into when studying Spanish is how to tackle ser versus estar. The bad news is they both translate as “to be” in English so that makes things a little spicy. The good news? Knowing nothing, you’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting it right. Could be worse!

To increase your odds and start making educated guesses, you’ll first need to let go of your mono concept of “to be” and know you’ll have to make a secondary analysis to determine which “to be” you’ll need to accurately express what you want to say. It’ll take a little time to get your brain used to it but, we promise, with a bit of practice, you will get the hang of it.

Let’s start with the conjugations in the present tense:

PRONOMBRESERESTAR
Yosoyestoy
eresestás
Él, Ella, Ustedesestá
Nosotrossomosestamos
Vosotrossoisestáis
Ellos, Ellas, Ustedessonestán

NOTE: A quick tip here on how to remember which conjugation is which: if it’s estar, it always begins with est-. Ser is “the other one”.

Before diving in, it’s worth taking a couple of minutes to get these memorized. Just study one conjugation for a minute. Pull out a piece of paper and write out as much as you can from memory. If you get anything wrong, do it again until you get 100%.

Now, how to choose. The very short answer is to follow this simple rule: ser is used to indicate permanent states and estar is used to indicate temporary states and locations. This covers the bulk of it and, if followed correctly, will increase your accuracy to approximately 85%. Better than 50/50!

Taking the broader view, the best way to approach this is situationally. Unless you’re training to be a Spanish instructor, you will never need to list all the usages. As a student of the language, all you need to know is what to say in the moment.

And speaking of those “moments”, here is just about everything you wanted to know about ser v. estar. ¡Vamos! (Let’s go!)

DESCRIBING PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS – 50/50 SER & ESTAR

Permanent States – SER: When you want to describe what someone or something looks like, what qualities they possess, where they are from, what they are made of, profession, nationality, etc., you’re going to use ser.

Madrid es grande.Madrid is big.
El libro es de México.The book is from Mexico.
Ellos son altos.They are tall.
Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán.I am not a sailor, I am a captain.

Temporary States – ESTAR: When you want to describe something more transitory, such as someone’s mood, how something at that moment looks, feels, smells, etc., you’re going to use estar.

La ciudad está tranquila (esta noche).The city is calm (this evening).
Yo estoy listo ahora.I am ready now.
La sopa está demasido caliente.The soup is too hot.
Ellos están felices porque hace sol.They are happy because it is sunny.
¿Cómo estás?How are you?
Estoy bien.I am well.

LOCATION – MOSTLY ESTAR

When you want to describe where something is located, use estar.

Lima está en Peru.Lima is in Peru.
Tú estás en el café.You are in the café.
La comida está sobre la mesa.The food is on the table.
Ellos no están aquí.They are not here.

NOTE: Where something or someone is located may or may not be a permanent location. No matter, it’s always estar except…..

When describing the location of an event in which case, use ser.

La fiesta es en mi casa.The party is at my house.
El concierto es en el estadio.The concert is in the stadium.

THE HOUR, DAY, AND DATE – SER

¿Qué hora es?What time is it?
Es la una.It is one o’clock.
Son las dos.It is 2 o’clock.
¿Qué fecha es?What is the date?
Es el 1 de enero.It is the 1st of January.
¿Qué día es hoy?What day is it today?
Es el lunes.It is Monday.

POSSESSION – SER

¿De quién es el libro?Whose book is it?
Es mi libro.It’s my book.
No, es su libro.No, it’s her book.
Es el libro de Pedro, no?It’s Pedro’s book, isn’t it?

THE WILD CARDS SER & ESTAR

There are instances when both are grammatically correct. However, the meaning will change dramatically depending on what you use.

¿Cómo está tu madre?How is your mother?
Está bien.She is well.
¿Cómo es tu madre?What does your mother look like?
Es alta y rubia.She is tall and blond.
Está contenta.She is happy. (at the moment)
Es contenta.She is happy. (she is generally a happy person)
Está fría.She is cold. (to the touch)
Es fría.She is cold. (she has a cold personality)
Note: “She is cold”, as in “she needs a blanket” is Ella tiene frío. See our upcoming piece on expressions using tener to learn more.

More examples:

La ciudad es bonita.The city is beautiful.
La ciudad está bonita.The city is beautiful. (in this moment)
La banana es verde.The banana is green. (that’s the variety)
La banana está verde.The banana is green. (it’s unripe)

MARITAL & LIFE STATUS – ESTAR

Está soltero.He is single.
Estamos casadas.We are married.
Estoy viva.I’m alive.
Están muertos.They are dead.

RELATIONSHIPS – SER

Él es mi hermano.He is my brother.
Somos esposos.We are spouses.
Son sus padres.They are his parents.
Soy tu profesora.I am your teacher.

¡Ahí está! (There it is!) To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list of all the ins, outs and exceptions of the ser y estar world. We could really geek out on that (and we do!). For our purposes here, these are the broad strokes. If you can get your head around all of the above and put it into practice, your accuracy level should be closer to 99%. As you move forward, you’ll pick up on the rest and incorporate them into your knowledge base as you go.

Oh, and always remember, mistakes are just opportunities to learn. Each one gets you that much closer to mastery so don’t sweat it.

Bonus quiz: How would you translate Hamlet’s “To be or not to be. That is the question.”?

Ser o no ser, esa es la cuestión.

Happy learning!

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