To be or to be – that is the question. Just as well Shakespeare wasn’t Spanish.
These little Spanish devils have been the undoing of many of our very best efforts in the past, but no more! Let’s finally, and for all time, come to grips with the little sods.
We know that both words mean ‘to be’, but most of the time we either don’t know or we can’t remember when to use one and when to use the other.
Then there are the instances when you could use either one, but depending on which one you choose, it changes the meaning of what’s being said. We’ll cover that as well.
First though, let’s watch a short video that talks about these two verbs AND helps us practise our listening skills. Enjoy!
When to use ser
Ser is mostly, but not exclusively, used to talk about things of a more permanent nature, like someone’s nationality, family members, occupation, personality etc.
|To describe people or things.||Es azul. (It is blue.)
Es católico. (He’s catholic.)
Es un republicano. (He’s a Republican.)
|To describe relationships.||Son mis hermanas. (They are my sisters.)
Es mi mejor amigo. (She is my best friend.)
|Origin and nationality.||Soy de Ciudad Del Cabo. (I’m from Cape Town.)
Soy sudafricana. (I’m South African.)
|The four P’s: Personality, Physical Attributes, Profession, and Possession.||Es divertido. (He is fun.)
Es alta. (She is tall.)
Soy escritora. (I’m a writer.)
Es mío. (It is mine).
|To identify somebody or something.||Es mi hermano. (It’s my brother.)
Es un libro. (It is a book.)
|To mention the material something is made of.||Es de oro. (It’s made of gold.)|
|To mention who the author / painter / creator is.||Este libro es de Maya Angelou. (This book is by Maya Angelou.)|
|Date and time.||Son las dos y cuarto. (It is quarter past four.)
Es lunes. (It is Monday.)
|To talk about calendar fixtures (arrangements).||Las celebraciones son por la tarde y la ceremonia es el domingo. (The celebrations are in the afternoon and the ceremony is on Sunday.)|
|To tell how much something costs.||¿Cuánto es? (How much is it?)
Son cuatros Euros. (It’s four Euros.)
|Followed by an adjective it’s also used to express subjective opinion.||Es interesante. (It’s interesting.)|
|Ser + para is used to indicate purpose or recipient.||El lápiz es para debujar. (The pencil is for drawing.)
El lápiz es para mi. (The pencil is for me.)
|To form the passive.||El artículo fue escrito en el periódico. (The article was written in the newspaper.)|
When to use estar.
Estar is mostly, but not exclusively, used to describe temporary situations like current mood, current location, current physical condition, current occupation, current state of affairs etc.
|To indicate location.||¿Dónde está Colleen? (Where is Colleen?)
Ella está en España. (She is in Spain.)
|Mood and physical condition.||Está enfadada. (She is angry.)
Está enferma. (He is ill.)
|To describe the result of an action.
I find this one tricky to work out in my head so I cheat by thinking of it as a temporary state of affairs – the tan eventually will go, he will sit down and they will get up from their chairs.
|Está morena. (She is tanned – as a result of her sunbathing.)
Está de pie. (He is standing – as a result of getting up from his chair.)
La audiencia está sentada. (The audience is seated – as a result of sitting down.)
|To describe dead people or things.
For some reason the Spanish see being dead as a temporary condition. Just go with it.
|Está muerto. (He is dead.)|
|Used with the adverbs bien and mal.||¿Cómo está tu madre? (How is your mother?)
Está muy bien. (She’s fine.)
|To talk about temporary occupations.
Ser + de + occupation
|Está de au pair. (She is an au pair).
In other words, this is not her profession, she’s just an au pair for now.
|To form the present and past continuous tenses.||Está hablando. (She is talking.)|
Instances when you could use either ser or estar
In many instances you can use either ser or estar, but the meaning of the sentence changes depending on which one you choose.
|Juan es una persona muy limpia.
Juan is a very clean person. (He’s always clean.)
|La cocina está limpia.
The kitchen is clean. (Until it’s dirty again.)
|El caviar es caro.
Caviar is expensive.
(It’s always expensive.)
|El caviar está caro.
Caviar is expensive.
(At present caviar is even more expensive than usual.)
|Alicia es quapa.
Alicia is good-looking.
(This is an inherent quality – Alicia is always good-looking.)
|Juan está guapo.
Juan is handsome.
(Juan has had a haircut and now I think it makes him look very handsome.)
Temporary condition. Poor Juan.
|Ana es una profesora.
Ana is a teacher, this is her profession.
|Eva está de camarera.
Eva is a waitress, but it’s not her profession. Maybe she’s just doing it during the school holiday.
More examples of when we can use either ser or estar.
|Ella es abierta.
She has an open character.
|La puerta está abierta.
The door is open.
|Ella es atenta.
|Ella está atenta.
She’s paying attention.
|Ella es buena.
She’s a good person.
It tastes good.
|Ella es delicada.
She’s a delicate person.
She’s in ill health.
|Ella es despierta.
She’s bright / clever.
|Ella es interesada.
She’s selfish / self-centered.
|Ella es lista.
It looks / feels new.
|Ella es orgullosa.
She’s proud of something.
It’s green (in colour).
It’s green (i.e. not yet mature).
|Ella es viega.
She looks / feels old.
|Ella es viva.
She’s lively / intelligent.
|Ella es aburrida.
Source credit: ¡Exacto! A Practical Guide to Spanish Grammar
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