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School of Modern Languages & Cultures
Department of Hispanic Studies

 

The use of ser and estar

 

 

Although having two verbs in Spanish that do the job of English "to be" may create difficulties for learners of Spanish, it should be seen more as an opportunity than as an obstacle. The two verbs do not have the same meaning, and once you  grasp the essential differences the ability to distinguish with ser and estar between two different kinds of "being" becomes a useful linguistic resource.

The difference is sometimes defined in terms of permanence (ser) and temporariness (estar). This notion is of some use, but does not cover all the possibilities and can be misleading. A better way of looking at the difference is to think of ser as defining identity and estar as indicating where (or in what condition) someone or something has ended up. The table below shows the differences between ser and estar according to the different grammatical constructions in which they can appear.
 

ser

estar

From Latin ESSE: essence, identity, existence

From Latin STARE: stand, stay, state

SUBJECT + ser + Ø
Expressing pure existence
u Pienso, luego soy [i.e., existo]
u Dijo Dios: "Sea la luz", y fue la luz

SUBJECT + estar + Ø
Implies being somewhere (here, there, at home, in the world)
u ¿Está Isabel? [i.e., ¿está aquí, está en casa?]
u Dile que no estoy

SUBJECT + ser + NOUN/PRONOUN
Saying who someone is or what something is
u Carmen es profesora
u Sevilla es [parece] una ciudad preciosa
u ¿Quién es ése?

SUBJECT + estar + NOUN/PRONOUN
Not possible
You will never say *Carmen está profesora. If you want to say that she is currently working as a teacher, then it will be Carmen está de profesora (de profesora is an adverbial phrase)

SUBJECT + ser + ADVERB
Only to say where or when an event takes place
u La corrida es [toma lugar] a las 5 de la tarde
u La reunión será [se celebrará] aquí

SUBJECT + estar + ADVERB
The essential use of estar: saying where something or someone is located, or a situation or state in which a person finds him/herself
u San José está [está situado] en Costa Rica
u Pepe está [se encuentra] en un apuro
u Estoy [me siento] bien, gracias
u Voy a estar [quedarme] tres días

SUBJECT + ser + ADJECTIVE
Classifying, defining, saying what kind of thing or person the subject is; like the use of ser with a NOUN (basically, es triste = es una persona triste)
u El chico es muy bueno [i.e., es un buen chico]
u Esta cerveza es muy buena [i.e., conozco la marca y sé que es de buena calidad]
u Es fácil aprender el español
u El vino de Málaga es dulce [i.e., es un vino dulce]
u Es vieja: tiene cien años
u La estatua es de oro

SUBJECT + estar + ADJECTIVE
Describing the state the subject is in after change has taken place, commenting on an accidental quality not considered inherent in the subject; like the use of estar with an ADVERB, in that you are essentially saying that the quality you are attributing to the subject is a place in which he/she/it has ended up (está triste = se encuentra en un estado de tristeza, se ha entristecido)
u Está mala: tiene fiebre [i.e., se encuentra mal]
u Está muy buena la cerveza, ¿no? [i.e., la estoy bebiendo y me parece bien]
u Hoy están [se han vuelto] muy difíciles los niños
u Este café está demasiado dulce [i.e., se ha puesto demasiado azúcar]
u Aunque tiene 100 años, está todavía muy joven [i.e., tiene el aspecto muy joven, se comporta de una manera juvenil]

SUBJECT + ser + PAST PARTICIPLE
The true passive construction: refers to the action being carried out
u El poema fue escrito por García Lorca [i.e., GL escribió el poema]
u Fueron [quedaron] heridos en un accidente
u Seré [me veré] obligado a firmar [i.e., alguien me obligará a firmar]
u Ella es bien conocida en su propio país
(NB some past participles can be used as ordinary adjectives: es aburrido = it's boring)

SUBJECT + estar + PAST PARTICIPLE
Not passive; refers to the result of the action having been carried out (so like estar + ADJECTIVE above)
u El poema está escrito en catalán
u Estaba [se encontraba] herido y sangraba
u Pepe está [anda] enamorado de la monja
u Ella está muerta

So there are two areas of usage that are unproblematic:
"to be" + NOUN must be ser;
"to be in a place" must be estar (unless it is an event taking place there).
The only situations in which you have to make the choice are:
"to be" + ADJECTIVE (ser inherent vs. estar accidental);
"to be" + PAST PARTICIPLE (ser passive action vs. estar result of action).

Lastly, consider this creative use of the distinction between ser and estar from a history book (about the Franco regime's strategy of developing a consumer society without political reform):

Una corriente había llegado a la conclusión de que al bienestar que había sido objetivo de gobierno debía corresponder el bien-ser, y este concepto entraba en aspectos inherentes a la persona humana que debe ser un sujeto en disfrute de derechos expresivos, asociativos, electivos.

One current of opinion had reached the conclusion that the material wellbeing [i.e., social welfare] that had been a government objective needed to be matched by a corresponding democratic wellbeing based upon the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association and participation in elections.

 

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M.P. Thompson
Updated Feb 2007

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