The English language relies on a universal verb – to be – to express countless meanings! In Spanish, there are two words that have split the responsibilities held by “to be”: SER and ESTAR. In order to understand when and how to use each of them, you should understand the logic underlying the rules first. Don’t worry – it’s all pretty easy!
SER and ESTAR: the Difference in Meaning
Let’s compare two English sentences:
- The sky is dark. (Because the weather is dreary)
- The sky is blue. (Because it is the basic color of the cloudless sky)
The dark color is not an inherent quality of the sky; it only appears so under certain circumstances like the time of the day or the kind of weather. It is a temporary condition, one of the many states the sky can have.
Blue, on the contrary, is the universally accepted color the sky has when there are no particular circumstances to alter it. And even on a dreary day, it is still blue, only we can’t see it because of the dark clouds.
As you can see, in the English sentence, the word “to be” is used to express both the temporary condition and the inherent quality.
Now let’s take a look at the Spanish translations of the sentences:
- The sky is dark. – El cielo está oscuro.
- The sky is blue. – El cielo es azul.
The first sentence emphasizes the temporary condition of the sky, and so, the verb ESTAR is used. The second sentence is just stating a constant fact, so, it relies on the Spanish verb SER.
If you still are unsure about when to use SER and when to rely on ESTAR, ask a question:
- What is the sky like today? – The sky is dark. (temporarily – ESTAR)
- What color is the sky? – The sky is blue. (always – SER)
Here’s yet another example to help you reinforce the newly acquired knowledge:
- What kind of person is he? (always)
He is loyal. - Él es leal.
- Why is he like that today? (today)
He is tired. – Está cansado.
Present Tense Forms of SER and ESTAR
Before we pass on to the actual uses of the verbs, let’s brush up on their Present Tense forms. Both verbs are irregular, so you’d better memorize these tables to proceed in the most effective way:
Common Uses of SER and ESTAR
Now, here are the most common uses of the two to-be equivalents:
Let’s consider a few examples to let the information settle in your memory:
When to Use SER
- Juanita es una niña talentosa.
Joanna is a talented child.
- ¿De dónde es? – Es de Argentina. – ¿Es argentino? – No, es chileno.
Where is he from? – He is from Argentina. – Is he Argentinian? – No, he is Chilean.
- ¿Cuál es tu profesión? – Soy cartero.
What do you do? – I am a postman.
- ¿Eres católica? – No, soy episcopal.
Are you a Catholic? – No, I am an Episcopalian.
- ¿Es la alcaldesa comunista? – No, es republicana.
Is the mayoress communist? – No, she is a republican.
- ¿De quién es esta bolsa? – Es de Martina. – ¿Y quién es Martina? – Es la hermana de Gustavo.
Whose bag is it? – It’s Martina’s. – And who is Martina? – She is Gustav’s sister.
- ¿Qué día es hoy? ¿Y qué hora es? – Es jueves, el catorce de septiembre. Son las ocho y media.
What day is it today? And what’s the time? – It’s Thursday, September 14th. It’s half past eight.
- Es esencial chequear la presión de los neumáticos.
It is essential to check the tire pressure.
- ¿De qué tela es la falda? – Es de seda.
What fabric is the skirt made of? – It’s silken.
- La exposición de arte es en el museo.
The art exhibition is at the museum.
When to Use ESTAR
- ¿Cómo está la tarta? – Todavía no está lista.
How’s the pie? – It’s not ready yet.
- ¿Dónde están las islas Malvinas? – Están en el océano Atlántico Sur.
Where are the Falkland Islands? – They are in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Note: Don’t confuse this use of ESTAR with the case of an action taking place somewhere (The art exhibition is at the museum.)
- ¿Qué estás escuchando? – Estoy escuchando a la canción nueva de Daddy Yankee.
What are you listening to? – I’m listening to a new song by Daddy Yankee.
Note: this example should not be considered a rule to memorize. I am going to write a separate post about the Spanish Progressive tenses later.
- Las redes sociales están destruyendo la sociedad. – No estoy de acuerdo.
Social networks are destroying society. – I disagree.
Note: There are numerous set phrases that use the verb ESTAR, of which estoy de acuerdo is only a single example.
Finally, there is one interesting thing you should remember about SER and ESTAR. There are cases in which both verbs can be used, but the meaning of the whole phrase will largely depend on the choice of the verb. E.g.:
- Luis está aburrido. - Louis is bored.
- Luis es aburrido. - Lous is boring.
That would be all you should remember about SER and ESTAR. And now, let's check how good your memory is!