the ser vs. estar question

The Ser vs. Estar Question: To Be or to Be?

To be or to be?

While the phrase doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Hamlet’s famous words, it’s a question you might find yourself asking when faced with two Spanish verbs that both mean “to be”: ser and estar.

So what’s the difference between these two ways of being?

When should you use ser and when is estar more appropriate?

Like the subjunctive tense and the world of Spanish plurals, this is one of those questions where a nice set of rules is exactly what you need.

But first things first, why bother?

Why Is It Important to Use Ser and Estar Correctly?

Surely using the wrong version of “to be” doesn’t cause that much confusion, does it?

Sorry folks, but it does. There’s a big difference between being bored and being a boring person, and saying someone is good-looking or a good person.

We’ll get to avoiding these errors later on, but just in case you aren’t convinced by these examples, remember that getting your head around the finer points of Spanish grammar will not only make you sound incredible, but will also transform you into a better version of your Spanish-speaking self.

Let’s get down to it and find out when to use the verb ser.

When to Use Ser

Ser describes the “essence of things”—the things that make something what it is and are unlikely to change. Some people say that ser describes “permanent states,” but we like the essence idea better.

1. Use Ser When Describing People or Things

Ser is used for both physical descriptions and character descriptions or personality traits.

  • Ella es alta. (She is tall.)
  • Ella es inteligente y amable. (She is intelligent and kind.)

It is also used to describe where someone is from and their nationality. These characteristics are what make up the essence of a person.

  • Ella es de Colombia. (She’s from Colombia.)
  • Ella es colombiana. (She’s Colombian.)

You also can’t usually change how tall you are (unless you’re Lionel Messi) and you definitely can’t change where you’re from (as Argentine Messi fans will proudly boast), hence the use of ser.

The same rules apply for things, so you use ser to describe a table in the same way you would a person:

  • La mesa es grande. (The table is big.)
  • La mesa es italiana. (The table is Italian.)

Don’t forget to use the correct gender when using adjectives. If you’re a girl, you’ll probably want to use adjectives ending in “a” when describing yourself, if you’re a boy, go for “o.”

2. Use Ser to Describe a Person’s Occupation

A person’s job is also deemed to contribute to their “essence,” so we also use ser in this case. To ask someone what they do for a living, you can ask, “¿De qué trabajas?,” and you’ll receive the reply, “Soy + [their job].

  • Soy profesora. (I’m a teacher.)
  • Soy abogado. (I’m a lawyer.)

Note that unlike in English, you do not use the indefinite article un/una (a/an) when talking about jobs. (It’s “Soy profesora” not “Soy una profesora.”)

3. Use Ser to Talk About Relationships

Ser is also used to describe relationships between people. Examples include:

  • Él es mi hermano. (He’s my brother.)
  • Gustavo es mi novio. (Gustavo is my boyfriend.)
  • Ella es mi amiga. (She’s my friend.)

Apparently these relationships also make up your essence, which makes sense if you think about it.

4. Use Ser to Talk About Possession

When talking about things that belong to you or other people, you should always use ser.

For example, the verb ser is used in the following cases:

  • La casa es mía. (The house is mine.)
  • Es mi libro. (It’s my book.)
  • Estos zapatos son míos. (These shoes are mine.)

5. Use Ser to Talk About the Time

As time is of the essence, it makes sense to use ser when describing it. So don’t forget to use ser when talking about the time:

  • The hour: Es la una. (It’s one o’clock.)
  • The day: Hoy es jueves. (Today is Thursday.)
  • Dates: Hoy es el 21 de julio. (Today is July 21.)
  • Months: Mi cumpleaños es en mayo. (My birthday is in May.)

When to Use Estar

In contrast to the essence of ser, estar is used to talk about temporary states, locations or conditions.

1. Use Estar for Temporary States

Estar is used to describe someone’s mood, and implies that this state might be temporary. For example, in “Está feliz” (He/she is happy), the person is happy now but won’t always be happy. If someone were always happy that would contribute to their essence, and therefore would be described using ser: Es feliz (He/She is happy).

To describe illnesses, use estar. Estoy enferma (I’m sick), for example.

2. Use Estar in the Present Continuous

The verb estar is also used to make the present continuous tense, which is used to describe actions happening in or around the moment of speaking.

To make this tense, you need the verb estar in the present tense before the stem of the verb plus “-ando” (-AR verbs) or “-iendo” (-IR/-ER verbs).

estoy     estamos
estás     estáis                  +           Verb stem + (-ando/-iendo)
está       están

Examples are:

  • Hablar: Estoy hablando. (I’m talking.)
  • Comer: Están comiendo. (They’re eating.)
  • Escribir: Estamos escribiendo. (We’re writing.)

These are all temporary actions or conditions; it is assumed you aren’t going to keep on talking, eating or writing for the rest of your life, and so you need to use estar and not ser. Using ser in this case would be incorrect.

3. Use Estar with Location

When describing where something or someone is, you also need to use our temporary friend estar. For example, the question “¿Donde está Juan?” (Where is Juan?) uses estar, as does the answer, “Está en el supermercado” (He’s at the supermarket), or wherever else Juan might be.

Basically if you hear the phrase “¿Donde está…?,” it’s a massive clue that you’ll need to reply using estar.

Common Mistakes with Ser and Estar

As you can probably imagine by this point, it’s very easy to make mistakes when using ser and estar. But never fear, budding language learner, it’s all part of the process to get ser and estar mixed up, so don’t worry when you do.

To help you avoid falling flat on your face, we’ve compiled a list of the most common mistakes related to the “to be or to be” question.

1. Ser aburrido/a vs. Estar aburrido/a

A common mistake for those learning English is to say “I’m boring” when they actually mean “I’m bored.” Spanish learners can easily make a similar mistake, but in this case it’s not about learning the difference between two adjectives, but rather between two verbs.

So what’s the difference between ser aburrido/a and estar aburrido/a? Well, seeing as you asked…

Soy aburrido/a means I’m boring. This means your entire essence is boring, and you are a boring person. It’s probably best to avoid saying this sentence altogether unless you either a) want to alienate yourself, or b) are in fact a boring person and want to tell the world about it.

You might want to say es aburrido/a (he/she/it is boring) when describing someone or something, but don’t blame us if someone is insulted by this declaration.

Estoy aburrido/a translates to “I’m bored” and is probably therefore more socially acceptable. This state of boredom is temporary, and we hope, more useful for everyday life.

2. Ser feliz vs. Estar feliz

We touched upon this one earlier. Es feliz” means someone is a happy person, whereas está feliz” means they are temporarily happy. Both are useful, but it’s important to know the difference between a perpetually happy person and someone who is just temporarily satisfied.

3. Es muerto vs. Está muerto

Use the second one, always. For some reason the Spanish see being dead as a temporary state, and therefore always use estar to describe dead things or people. Está muerto, okay. It’s dead. Just go with it.

4. La fiesta es en mi casa vs. La fiesta está en mi casa

Going against our intuition once again, when describing planned events we use ser and not estar, even when describing location.

So “La fiesta es en mi casa” (The party’s at my house) is correct, even though we’re talking about the location of the party. The same applies to any pre-planned event such as meetings, weddings, parties or any other occasion where invitations have been sent out and RSVPing may be required.

5. Es bueno vs. Está bueno

This one can cause problems, for if you use “está bueno/a” in the wrong context, you might get some funny looks. Está bueno/a” translates to “he or she is hot,” as in good-looking. This one is definitely useful in some contexts, but should probably be avoided in others.

If you want to say someone is smoking hot, use “está bueno/a.” But if you want to say someone or something is good in general, use “es bueno.” 

“Él es bueno” means “He’s a good person.”

So there you have it, you now know which circumstances require each type of “be.” You can now move on to more pressing questions.

To be or not to be, for example.

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