If you have come to this place, that means you have already noticed the importance of ser and estar. You have also understood that sometimes it is not that easy to decide which one to use.
Both verbs can be translated as “to be” to English as you know. And that is exactly the reason why we get into so much trouble with them. The point is we should stop trying to translate. Instead, we should learn the situations when to use ser and when to use estar.
That’s why in this article, I review those situations where you can be sure about whether to use ser or estar, also decide what to do in more complex situations.
This post is a lengthy one. Also, where appropriate I give links to previous posts which were also related to ser and estar. It is difficult to cover this classic topic of Spanish all at one time.
Before diving into this post, you may, for instance, want to review the conjugations of both verbs in present tense. Here they are:
So, now the tips follow:
#1: There are situations which it is for sure to use SER. So, there won’t be any confusion. So learn when to use SER for sure.
WHEN TO USE SER
es estudiante (he/she is a student)
es un libro (It is a book)
soy ingeniero (I’m an engineer)
ella es de España (she’s from Spain)
¿de dónde es usted? (where are you from?)
es de lana (it’s made of wool)
- TELLING THE TIME
es la una (it’s one o’clock)
son las siete (it’s seven o’clock)
es verano (it’s summer)
es muy tarde (it’s very late)
es imporante estudiar (it’s important to study)
- WHERE AN EVENT TAKES PLACE
La fiesta es en mi casa. (The party is in my house)
- WHEN AN EVENT TAKES PLACE
La fiesta es a las nueve de la noche. (The party is at nine o’clock)
#2: Same is valid for estar. There are some uses of estar, which you simply cannot confuse with the uses of ser. So, learn when to use ESTAR for sure
WHEN TO USE ESTAR
El libro está en la mesa. (The book is on the table)
- ITS USE IN GRAMMAR: PROGRESSIVE TENSE
Progressive tense in Spanish is formed using the verb estar plus the present participle. I’ll write about this tense soon. For now, it suffices to know that estar is used as an auxiliary verb in this case, not to mean “to be”.
Los alumnos están hablando. (The students are speaking)
- DESCRIPTON OF HEALTH
Estoy enferma. (I am sick).
- IN VARIOUS FIXED EXPRESSIONS
I had prepared a separate post on common expressions with estar before. As you know, in every language there are fixed phrases which we simply have to memorize, estar is just another case.
#3: The confusion whether to use estar or ser arises when these verbs are used with adjectives. This is the tricky part. You can have problems-hence make mistakes- only when they are used together with an adjective. Stick this in your mind not to introduce unnecessary problems.
How to know which adjective goes with estar and which one with ser then?
- IF AN ADJECTIVE DESCRIBES FUNDAMENTAL QUALITIES, USE SER
Es un hombre inteligente. (He is an intelligent man).
- WHEN DESCRIBING PEOPLE USE SER
- WITH GENERAL FACTS, USE SER AS WELL
El cielo es azul (The sky is blue).
- TO EXPRESS THAT SOMEONE HAS DIED, USE ESTAR
Está muerto (he is dead)
- TO EXPRESS THE LIKES OR DISLIKE ABOUT FOOD, USE ESTAR
Está muy bien la comida (the meal tastes very good)
- LEARN THE NOTORIOUS ADJECTIVES BY HEART WHICH CHANGE THEIR MEANING WHEN USED WITH SER AND ESTAR
Some adjectives can be used with both. But they have one meaning when used with ser and another meaning when used with estar. Here is the list of the adjectives which change their meaning with estar and ser.
- SLIGHT DIFFERENCE IN THE MEANING
This is by far the most difficult point. Because many other adjectives apart from those given in the previous point can be used with both estar and ser. On the other hand, this time, the meaning does not change completely as opposed to those in the above classification, only it can indicate a temporary or permanent condition. For example;
El hielo es frio (the ice is cold), You are making a general statement here so use ser)
Este café está frio (this coffee has become cold)
So it can be difficult to decide.
Unfortunately, to master this last use, you need some time. On the other hand when you are exposed to the same phrases over and over again, it will become easily memorable. Treat them as something you need to simply know as fixed expressions. Do not try to categorize if they do not fit into one of the above divisions. In that case you need to learn them by heart. That’s why it is very important to start reading and listening to articles in the language you want to learn, even if you are a beginner. Try this: collection of the reading articles in Spanish which are suitable for beginning students.