One of the hardest things for Spanish learners starting out and even further down the line is to understand the difference between ser and estar. And even when you think you’ve mastered this, you’re going to find yourself getting tripped up by these sneaky verbs from time to time.
You’re probably also thinking why do they need two forms of to be when we have one that works fine. Well that’s the beauty of foreign languages. If they were all the same you’d just be speaking English. We don’t just learn a foreign language where the words are direct translations and nothing else, where would the fun in that be.
So even though you might hate ser and estar now, try to embrace this Spanish grammar and when you have managed to conquer it, I can guarantee you’re going to come to love ser and estar and it’s these things that make foreign languages so interesting and so special.
Now let’s take a look at when you should be using each form of to be, and we’ll provide you with some examples so you can see it in action.
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Ser or Estar
One quick way to try and remember the difference between ser and estar is that ser is used for permanent states where as is used for temporary states and locations. Obviously there’s more to the rule than this, but this is a good way to get you started. And you can apply this to most situations while you try and get you head around these verbs.
When to use Ser
Talking about nationality and concrete characteristics
Both nationality and concrete characteristics use ser.
Soy de Inglaterra.
I am from England
I am French
El hombre es inteligente
The man is intelligent
Talking about physical attributes
When we’re talking about physical attributes (not clothes), we use ser.
La mujer es gorda.
The woman is fat.
El niño es alto.
The boy is tall.
Talking about professions
Even though a profession could change, it’s not going to change on a day to day basis and is seen as a more permanent state so we use ser.
I am a teacher.
Telling the time
We use ser to tell the time.
Es la una y cuarto
It’s quarter past one.
Location of events
You usually associate estar with location and this is true unless you’re talking about events. The location of events is described using ser.
La boda será en la iglesia.
The wedding will be in the church.
Here it is ser, because it is an event that is being described.
When to use Estar
Talking about locations
Even though locations can be though of as permanent states because buildings don’t move, we use estar when talking about location; both a person’s location which can move and a building or objects location, even if it seems more permanent.
¿Dónde está Sally?
Sally está en el baño.
Where is Sally?
Sally is in the bathroom
La estación está al lado del banco
The station is next to the bank
Important: This is only used when talking about people or things! Remember, the location of events is described using ser.
Talking about temporary states
To describe a temporary state of a person or thing.
I am tired.
Mi jefe está enfadado.
My boss is angry.
Ser or Estar – specific meanings
Some adjectives seem to change their meaning depending is you use ser or estar so you need to learn them and be careful or you’ll have some funny mix ups.
Estoy negro – I’m in a bad mood
Soy negro – I’m black (race
Es verde – it’s green
Está verde – it’s unripe
Mi amiga es viva – the girl is lively
El perro está vivo – the dog is alive
La chica es lista – the girl is smart
Está listo – it’s ready
Mi jefe es malo – my boss is bad
Mi jefe está malo – my boss is ill
Soy una persona buena – I’m a good person
No te preocupes, estoy bueno – Don’t worry, I’m well (in health)
Estoy cansado – I’m tired
Este hombre es cansado – this man is tiring (boring)
Estoy seguro – I’m sure
El lugar es seguro – the place is safe
Soy un hombre rico – I’m a rich man (money)
La comida está rica – the food is rich (flavour)
If you mix these up, a Spanish person will know you’re learning and will probably be able to work out what you mean based on the context of your conversation. However, if you do manage to learn them it will make your Spanish sound much more natural and will bring you closer to fluency.
How you can practise ser and estar
If you haven’t heard of SpanishDict already then you should definitely check it out. It’s a fantastic online dictionary that is a must for having on hand conjugations and also provides you with practise exercises for tricky grammar rules. Here is the practise exercise on Spanish Dict for the difference between ser and estar.
Study Spanish is another useful tool that explains all of the Spanish grammar rules and provides you with an exercise after each explanation to practise. Here is their practise exercise for the difference between ser and estar.
It’s going to take a while for you to master the differences between ser and estar and even when you think you’ve got it, you’re probably going to make mistakes. But that’s ok. Reading this once isn’t going to mean you’ve learnt the rules, you need to practise them in real life, and every time you make a mistake, realise your mistake, why it wasn’t correct and try and learn from that going forward.
Eventually using these two forms of to be will become so natural to you, you’ll wonder why we don’t have an equivalent in English.
Do you have troubles with ser and estar or do you struggle with other Spanish grammar points. Let us know in the comments below.