Ser vs Estar: Learn the 2 Spanish “To Be” Words Easily
Ser vs Estar can be a headache for Spanish beginners. If I only had one sentence to teach you everything you need to know about ser vs estar, I’d say this: ser is used to talk about what something is, and estar is used to talk about how something is.
In reality, it’s a little more nuanced than this. While they both signify “to be” in Spanish, ser and estar are each used in different contexts to communicate different feelings and states of being. This can be confusing at first, especially if your native language only uses one verb to signify “being”, like English does.
Even seasoned Spanish learners get tripped up by these two little verbs. But don’t worry–the more you learn and practice, the easier it will be for you to choose the correct “to be” verb. Read on for lots of tips and examples that will help you feel more comfortable distinguishing between ser vs estar!
How to conjugate ser vs estar
Before you use these verbs, you’ll need to know how to conjugate them. Both verbs are irregular, so make sure to memorize their conjugations:
|Yo soy||Nosotros somos|
|Tú eres||Vosotros sois|
|Él/ella/usted es||Ellos/ellas/ustedes son|
|Yo estoy||Nosotros estamos|
|Tú estás||Vosotros estáis|
|Él/ella/usted está||Ellos/ellas/ustedes están|
How to use ser (with examples)
Now let’s dive into our first verb: ser. As a general rule, we use ser to talk about permanent states. There are a handful of situations that always, or almost always, call for the use of ser. To remind yourself of these situations, remember the acronym DOCTOR: Description, Occupation, Characteristics, Time, Origin, Relation!
- “The churros were crispy and sugary”…when you describe something, you’re naming its permanent, unchanging qualities–or, at the very least, qualities that won’t change any time soon. In addition to physical characteristics, things like name, nationality, and religion are considered descriptions, which call for the use of ser.
- “Ramona es alemán.” (Ramona is German.).
- “Soy baja y vieja.” (I am short and old.)
- To describe the way someone spends their time–either because of a job or a hobby–always use ser. Of course, people can change jobs and find new hobbies, but in general, it’s a pretty permanent characteristic.
- “Magdalena es camarera.” (Magdalena is a waitress.)
- “Sam es videojugador.” (Sam is a gamer.)
- Like I mentioned above, when you’re describing a person’s physical characteristics, you should use ser. This also applies when you’re describing characteristics of their personality.
- “No va a cantar frente a una audiencia–es tímida.” (She’s not going to sing in front of an audience–she’s shy.)
- “Somos súper amables.” (They are very kind.)
- The date, the year, the time on the clock–these pieces of info are simple facts (it’s not Back to the Future here!). To talk about them, always use ser.
- “Son las tres y media de la tarde.” (It’s 3:30 in the afternoon.)
- “¡Mañana es mi cumpleaños!” (Tomorrow is my birthday!)
- When you talk about where someone is from or what something is made of, you’re talking about their origin. In these cases, always use ser.
- “Estas ostras son de las aguas frías de Rhode Island.” (These oysters are from the cold waters of Rhode Island.)
- “La mesa es de madera.” (The table is made of wood.)
- When you want to talk about how people or things are related to each other, use ser.
- “Aunque no se parecen, Luis es primo de Catalina.” (Although they don’t look alike, Luis is Catalina’s cousin.)
- “Ellos son mejores amigos.” (They are best friends).
There are also lots of impersonal expressions in Spanish that use ser. Here are some of the common ones (but this isn’t a full list):
- Es bueno… (It’s good…)
- Es malo… (It’s bad…)
- Es necesario… (It’s necessary…)
- Es importante… (It’s important…)
- Es probable… (It’s probable…)
- Es dudoso… (It’s doubtful…)
- Es recomendable… (It’s recommended…)
- Es una lástima… (It’s a pity…)
- No es cierto… (It’s not certain…)
Although these expressions are used in written Spanish, you’ll probably encounter them most in spoken Spanish, so keep your ears perked!
How to use estar (with examples)
Now that we’ve mastered some of the most common uses of ser, let’s talk about estar. While ser signifies a permanent condition, estar usually indicates a temporary quality. Here’s another useful acronym to help you remember the most common situations where estar is used! Think of PLACE: Position, Location, Action, Condition, Emotion.
- When you want to talk about the physical position a person or thing is in, use estar.
- “El boli está encima de la mesa.” (The pen is on top of the table.)
- “Estamos sentados en el teatro.” (We are seated in the theater).
- Estar is used to describe the location of people and things.
- “Mi habitación está en el tercer piso.” (My room is on the third floor.)
- “Están en la playa.” (They are at the beach.)
- Here’s an important exception: when you want to talk about where something takes place, like the location of a party or event, use ser, not estar. This concept might be a little confusing at first. Try to think about it this way: an event occurs at a determined time and place, so that makes it a fact that must be conveyed using ser.
- “La junta es en el café cerca de mi casa.” (The meeting is in the cafe close to my house).
- You always use estar when you’re talking about ongoing action. This one is pretty easy to remember because in Spanish, the progressive tenses are always built using conjugations of estar, NEVER ser.
- “Estoy caminando por la ciudad.” (I am walking around the city.)
- “Siempre están chismeando.” (They are always gossiping.)
- Both physical and mental conditions are described using estar. You may be wondering how this is different from describing characteristics, which, as we saw earlier, calls for the use of ser. The answer is that characteristics are things about someone or something that are permanent–or at least will not change for a long time. On the other hand, conditions change within hours, days, or weeks. Let’s look at some examples:
- “No puedo ir a la fiesta porque estoy enferma.” (I can’t go to the party because I’m sick.) More often than not, an illness is something that goes away within days or weeks, so it’s a temporary condition that calls for the use of estar.
- “Estamos tan cansados porque estábamos viendo una película hasta las 3am anoche.” (We are so tired because we were watching a movie until 3am last night.)
- Maybe on a bad day, you wished that you could just feel happy all the time (hey, I’ve been there!). In reality, emotions change often. That’s why you use estar to describe them.
- “Clara está feliz porque ha encontrado un trabajo.” (Clara is happy because she found a job.) Although Clara is happy now, she might be sad or tired tomorrow–so emotions are temporary conditions that you describe using estar.
Estar is also used in many idiomatic phrases. These phrases often don’t make any sense if you translate them word for word, so their meaning must be learned as a unit. Try using a few of these idiomatic estar phrases the next time you’re chatting with a friend or tutor in Spanish–they’ll make you sound more native!
- Estar claro (to be clear)
- Estar en que (to believe or be sure of)
- Estar listo (to be ready)
- Estar en condiciones (to be in good shape)
- Estar en viaje (to be traveling)
- Estar como el pez en la agua (to be right at home)
Ser vs Estar: what’s their difference
Ser and estar can also be sneaky shapeshifters–some phrases will change meaning based on which one of them you use! Here are some examples:
|Ser aburrido (to be boring)||Estar aburrido (to be bored)|
|Ser verde (to be green)||Estar verde (to be unripe)|
|Ser listo (to be clever)||Estar listo (to be ready)|
|Ser seguro (to be safe)||Estar seguro (to be certain)|
|Ser vivo (to be sharp)||Estar vivo (to be alive)|
|Ser orgulloso (to be conceited or vain)||Estar orgulloso (to be proud)|
As you can see, changing the verb in these phrases can change their meaning quite a bit. Keep this in mind so you don’t accidentally call yourself conceited when you mean to say that you’re proud!
For two small verbs, ser and estar are truly mighty. With some studying and practice, you’ll be able to pick the right one without even thinking about it!
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Rae Cross is a writer, bookseller, and paint-by-number aficionado living in Charleston, SC, USA. When she’s not watching Youtube videos in Spanish or creating itineraries for her dream vacations, she’s working on her next piece.