There are two verbs in Spanish that drive most of us crazy.
It doesn't matter whether you're new to the language or you've been learning for a while.
Ser and estar are guaranteed to give you constant headaches throughout your Spanish learning journey.
You see, the English verb “to be” is actually two separate verbs in Spanish: ser and estar.
The difference between ser and estar is one of the most fundamental concepts in Spanish, and also one of the most confusing for Spanish language learners.
Yes, both verbs mean “to be,” but there’s a lot more to it than that.
The main reason ser and estar trip up new Spanish speakers is that English only has one verb for “to be”.
The concept of more than one verb to say what we can with a single word is difficult to grasp.
Unlike most other verbs like comer (to eat), for example, you cannot simply translate “to be” into Spanish and move on.
You will need to learn when to use ser and when to use estar.
The differences are important!
The entire meaning of your sentence will be different depending on whether you use ser or estar.
If you are feeling confused or overwhelmed, however, don’t worry!
Knowing which verb to use will become second nature to you once you understand the basic concept and get lots (and lots) of practice.
In this article, you'll learn to understand the fundamental differences between ser and estar, so you can start using them correctly in your conversations.
Mastering these two verbs will go along way to helping you sound more natural when you speak Spanish.
If you’re more of a visual learner, you can watch a video version of these examples and tips from my Fluent Spanish Academy youtube channel. Or, if you prefer to read the explanation or want to come back and review after watching the video, just scroll down past the video and keep reading!
Knowing when to use which verb is often confusing for new Spanish speakers because there is no hard and fast rule.
Instead, there are a few general rules of thumb that you will use to determine which word to use when.
Let’s start by reviewing the basics…
… the stuff you were probably told when you first learned Spanish at school or that you find at the beginning of your Spanish textbook.
The first question to ask yourself is ¿Cambia o no cambia?
(Does it change or not?)
Depending on whether the thing you’re talking about changes or not, you’ll use ser or estar.
Inherent characteristics (things that are always true) use ser.
For example, use ser when you are describing something about yourself or another person that does not change or is generally true, such as a personality trait or physical characteristic, a profession or a place of origin.
Here are some examples:
You might be saying to yourself that your profession is not always permanent.
You might change careers, for example.
Although that is true, your profession is also something about you that does not vary from moment to moment or day to day.
It is appropriate to consider your hair colour, profession, and height as essential character traits even though any of them could eventually change in the future.
This is one reason that I prefer to think of ser as inherent or innate instead of simply permanent.
We always use ser when telling time.
Although the time is always changing, it is also specific at any given moment.
Look at your watch or phone right now…
It is a specific time at this specific moment.
In that sense, there is no ambiguity when it comes to the time! Here are some examples in Spanish:
I will share more examples in a minute of common mistakes new Spanish speakers make with ser, but first, let’s take a look at estar.
Estar is an untrustworthy verb!
Really, adding estar into the mix is what confuses the situation!
Use estar when you can’t be sure something is always going to be the same or is likely to be different.
Estar is also used for descriptions that are temporary or fleeting such as location, condition and emotion.
Here are some common uses of estar:
Estar is also used when you are describing something that is the result of another action. The word porque can often be your clue that you may need to use estar instead of ser.
In this example, the openness of the windows is both a temporary state of being and the result of another condition.
Both situations require the use of estar.
Another use of estar that often confuses Spanish learners is when talking about death.
Death is considered a state of being in Spanish (as opposed to a permanent, inherent trait), so it is always used with estar.
One possible reason for this is Spanish people preferred to believe that the spirit lives on and that a person is only dead in a temporary way.
Here’s an example:
Before moving on to more complex examples and situations where either verb is appropriate, make sure that you are really comfortable with the basics.
If you can confidently answer those questions, it’s time to dive a little deeper…
Ser is also used to express an opinion that you consider true and not particularly subjective:
Your opinion of what makes a good or cheap hotel might be different than mine, but as long as you consider the opinion to be true, go ahead and use ser.
Again, you want to consider whether or not the trait changes and whether or not it’s inherent to the thing you’re describing.
Another situation that seems counterintuitive to many new Spanish speakers is describing the location of events.
As we’ve already seen, when talking about where something is located, we used estar.
So, you might think we should use estar for the location of events too since you are talking about the location of a one-time activity.
However, when you talk about when and where something is going to happen, you need to use ser.
Another interesting and potentially tricky situation occurs when using ser and estar with adjectives.
Sometimes, using ser or estar can change the meaning of the adjective that follows it. Some classic examples of this are with the words listo, bueno, and aburrido:
In some cases, you use either ser or estar.
But in these situations, the verb you choose can drastically change the meaning of your sentence.
For this reason, it’s important to understand the differences!
For example, take a look at the following sentences. Can you see the difference?
You might be thinking, “Wait! What’s going on?!”
That’s a great question and one of the things that makes the rules around ser and estar more flexible than new Spanish speakers might like!
In the first example, I used está because I was giving a reaction to something.
The food on my plate at that precise moment was delicious.
However, in the second sentence, I was making a general statement about the quality of the food at a particular restaurant, so I used ser.
I was stating an opinion that I believe to be generally true.
Take a look at these examples, which combine both a general description and a temporary one and you’ll see the difference:
Get it now?
When speaking about a general fact or truth, we use ser.
But if you want to talk about the temporary state of something in the moment, you’ll always use estar.
The same is true of physical descriptions and locations. If the information is temporary, you can use estar:
My dog is normally not skinny. But, in this case, I use estar because he’s temporarily skinnier than usual because he hasn’t been fed enough recently!
Here are a few more examples that will help you get to grips with these subtles differences:
As with most concepts, the best way to really learn the difference between ser and estar is to practice… a lot!
You may make some mistakes, but don’t let that keep you from trying.
Expose yourself to as much real life Spanish as possible:
Pay attention to how native speakers use the verbs ser and estar in everyday communication and do your best to follow suit.
As you read and listen to Spanish, make a special effort to note how ser and estar are used.
Before long, the difference will seem like second nature to you.
If you’d like to test your understanding of the difference between ser and estar now that you’ve made it through this tutorial, I have a 10-question quiz for you.
Have a go and see how well you understand these crucial Spanish verbs!
And don’t forget to bookmark this page so you can come back and review it again in the future when you need a reminder of ser vs estar!
What other aspects of Spanish grammar do you find tricky? Leave me a comment below and let me know!
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