Both ser and estar can be translated into the irregular English verb to be. Because there is just one verb in English to represent all the possible meanings of ser and estar, it is often hard for English speaking students to figure out when they should use one over the other. In some cases a sentence will be grammatically correct no matter which verb you use. The problem is that the sentence will mean two very different things to the native Spanish speaker depending on which of the two being verbs is choosen.

A simplistic explanation of the two verbs says that estar tells the condition and ser tells the essence of someone or something. Another way to think about this simple distinction is that when one wants to talk about how something is (condition), they use estar. When talking about what something is (essence), ser should be used. While this simple rule is correct, there is much more depth to these two important, and distinct, verbs.

Another simple rule that is often stated is that estar deals with the temporary and ser with the permanent. Again, there is much more to than simple permanence or temporariness when using ser and estar.

An example of these simple rules of condition and essence involve a green apple. This is a good example of where the simple rules work.

  • The apple is green. - The apple is not yet ripe. - La manzana está verde.
  • The apple is green. - The apple is green in color. - La manzana es verde.

The first sentence talks about the condition of the apple. A condition that will change. Therefore, estar is used.

The second sentence talks about the color of the apple, or the type that it is. An essence that will not change. Therefore, ser is used.

Both sentences are correct, but they mean different things. Using one form of the being verb when the other is meant can cause confusion with the one being spoken to or when reading written communication.

Beyond the Temporary

Besides temporary condition, there are other rules that can help the new Spanish student know which is the right verb.

When to Use Estar: From the Latin word stare meaning stand, stay or state

  • Condition of someone or something
  • Location of the person or thing
  • Result of action
  • Perception
  • How something is at this time
  • Always the verb used in progressive tenses
  • What something or someone does

When to Use Ser: From the Latin word esse meaning essence, identity or existence

  • Essence of someone or something
  • Material that something is made from
  • Express origin or nationality of the person or item
  • Show possession
  • Define religious or political affiliation
  • Dates
  • Time
  • Inherent Quality
  • Existence
  • Occupation
  • Where and When an event occurs
  • What something is
  • Used in certain impersonal expressions

A few example sentences:

  • ¿Cómo está él? How is he? - He has been sick. The question is, "what condition is he in now?"
  • ¿Cómo es él? How is he? - What is he like?
  • El está enfermo. He is sick. - He is not doing well currently.
  • El es enfermo. He is sick. - He is crazy or sickly.
  • El perro está muy bueno. The dog is very nice. - The dog was dirty but has been cleaned up to look nice.
  • El pero es muy bueno. The dog is naturally kind. - The dog's inherent quality is kind or gentle.
  • Ella está callada. She is quiet. - At this moment in time she is not talking.
  • Ella es callada. She is shy or introverted. - Her character is that of a quiet person.

When using ser and estar the student should not be translating words, they should translate meanings. Ser and estar can both be translated from the words to be. But when translating from English to Spanish, it is important to know what the "be" in the English sentence means (not just what it says) so that they can translate it to the right meaning.

Ser tells what something is by nature. Estar tells what something does. Ser tells who he is, but estar tells what he is being.

In certain impersonal expressions, ser is used. For example: Es necessario. It is necessary. Es obligatorio. It is obligatory.

In progressive sentences, the verb estar is always the proper being verb to use. Estar + -ando/-iendo. For example: Yo estoy comiendo. I am eating.

It is not possible to have estar + noun. Therefore, every time a noun immediately follows "to be" in English, it will always be ser + noun. El es maestro. He is a teacher.

Some Exceptions, or Seeming Exceptions

Occupation seems like it would be a temporary condition and therefore need estar. However, who someone is (what they equal) is defined by their occupation. Therefore, you must use ser. El es doctor.

Time, while it seems to constantly change, is by nature a constant. The time of 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon is, at its core, a fixed component. Therefore ser is used. Son las 2:00.

When someone dies, their condition is defined with estar. Even though death is permanent, it still uses the conditional aspect of estar. Está muerto.

Physical location uses estar. For example: estan en la sala. They are in the living room. Even though where someone is from is also a physical location, it more has to do with their origin. Therefore it is: Soy de los estados unidos. Not: Estoy de los estados unidos. I am from the United States.

Another time that ser is used when talking about physical location is when discussing where an event will take place. La fiesta es en el centro. Not: La fiesta está en el centro. The party is downtown.

The distinction between ser and estar is something that many English speakers struggle with. However, with time and practice the Spanish student can overcome thinking through all the rules. Eventually it will become natural to choose one over the other based on what sounds right. Assuming the student is interested in learning because they want to communicate in Spanish, they can be comforted in knowing that even if they get it wrong, most of the time they will be understood. Getting the distinction right every time is a nice goal, but students should learn to be more forgiving of themselves and be willing to make mistakes in the learning process. However, if the student is learning to get a grade and pass a test, there is a need to memorize the rules. Teachers are far less forgiving than friends with whom the student will communicate.

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