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To Be or Not To Be: How Do You Know Whether Ser or Estar Is Correct?



This is a very common question we hear from students learning Spanish, and not just beginners. Spanish has more than one verb where English has only “to be,” and that can be confusing. Sometimes it’s very clear which verb you should use, but not always.

This article will help clear up the basic difference between these two verbs. I’ll start with the most common uses, where there is usually no problem in identifying when to use ser and estar correctly.

Ser

Use this verb when you are describing anything – a person, object, feeling, event, etc. – and talking about its essential characteristics. And by essential, I do mean its essence: the characteristics of a person or thing that are more or less permanent require the use of the verb ser. Here are some examples.

Physical characteristics of things:

-color

-size

-material

Physical characteristics of people: body type (tall, short, thin, blonde, brunette)

Professions and occupations (teacher, student, doctor, lawyer, etc.)

Geographic or ethnic origin (she is Colombian, or she is from Colombia)

Example: “Antonio ES colombiano, ES de Bogotá. Antonio ES alto, moreno y delgado, él ES un abogado comercial. Antonio ES una buena persona”

Estar

Use this verb instead when you are referring to:

A status or mood: you should also use estar when you’re talking about the condition of a person or thing. This includes how you would respond when asked a question about “how” someone or something is, for example:

- ¿Cómo estás? Estoy bien

- La mesa está sucia (dirty)

- Pedro está feliz (happy)

The physical location of either a person or a thing: whenever you’re talking about positioning, it’s easy to know that you should use estar. This includes any time you want to say things like:

- My parents are at home – Mis padres están en casa

- The book is on the desk – El libro está en el escritorio

- My house is in New York – Mi casa está en Nueva York

Exception: When you are talking about where an event is taking place, you will use verb ser. For example: La fiesta es en la casa de Ana, la clase es en el aula 104.

Example:

“Arturo ESTÁ en su oficina ahora, él trabaja hasta muy tarde. La esposa de Arturo ESTÁ en casa y sus hijos ESTÁN en la universidad ahora. Arturo ESTÁ muy cansado por el trabajo, su esposa ESTÁ feliz porque tienen una nueva casa en Florida, la casa ESTÁ muy cerca a la playa. Los hijos de Arturo ESTÁN muy ocupados con los exámenes de la universidad. Ellos SON muy estudiosos”

Here as you can see, we use verb ESTAR always when we talk about location and status or moods, however at the end of the paragraph we use verb SER to mention Arturo´s kids characteristics, they are very studious.

Ser o Estar?

But, sometimes the use of either verb can be correct, depending on what the person really wants to express. Are you talking about a characteristic or about a status?

Compare, for example:

“Pedro ES delgado.” Pedro is thin: this is a physical characteristic. We are describing Pedro’s body type, which is permanent or would only change gradually.

“Pedro ESTÁ Delgado.” Pedro is thin now; it seems like he’s lost weight. We are noting a change in condition, a difference in status, not a more or less permanent characteristic.

You get the difference?

Now compare in a conversation between Pedro and Miguel:

M: Pedro, ERES delgado! (Pedro, you are thin)

P: Si, lo sé, SOY delgado. (yes, I know, I am thin)

M: Pero Pedro, ESTÁS delgado (But Pedro, you look thinner)

P: Si, estoy a dieta, perdí 5 kilos, ESTOY delgado. (yes, I´m on a diet, I lost 5 kilos. I am thinner)

Another example:

“Esa flor ES amarilla.” That flower is yellow, which is its inherent characteristic. This could be a sunflower or daffodil.

“Esa flor ESTÁ amarilla.” That flower is yellow: it looks that way now. This mean its status: for instance, the flower is dying, has had too much sun, or needs water.

Like these cases we have many, others just change the meaning completely, but I would say the key to understand when to use each one is: essential characteristics use SER, while status, condition, and location use ESTAR.

You can find more resources online. Spanish Millennium also offers workshops with specific subjects like “Ser y Estar” in addition to regular classes. Contact us if you’re interested.

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